Subway recently announced its intent to “transition to serving only protein from animals that have never received antibiotics across all of its 27,000+ U.S. restaurants in early 2016.” This change goes beyond the positions of McDonald’s and other food retailers, who are moving to serve protein from animals not given antibiotics “considered important to human medicine.”

Thomas Titus, a pork producer from Elkhart, Ill., is concerned about animal welfare in light of Subway’s announcement. He says, “Not being able to treat animals when they’re sick is inhumane. A healthy pig is a healthy food supply.”

He indicated that when he has a cold, or when his daughter gets sick, the doctor sometimes prescribes an antibiotic. He doesn’t understand why producers shouldn’t have the same ability to protect animals.

Dr. Jennifer Koeman, Director of Producer and Public Health at the National Pork Board, also was on the call for USFRA. She says the Pork Board’s dedicated channel marketing team has worked with Subway and the announcement came as a surprise to them.

A concern both Koeman and Titus have is that other companies will jump on the bandwagon with a similar “me too” stance.

“We have concerns for the animals’ individual health,” Titus says.

The company has yet to provide details of its program. And, in a move that many people felt was completely unacceptable, Subway was initially deleting comments on its Facebook page that asked questions about its new position.

Here are two that were not deleted from Subway’s Facebook page:

Troy Hadrick: “Every morning I take care of my cattle. I consult with our veterinarian and use USDA approved treatment methods if they get sick. Apparently, you would rather sell fear and encourage producers to let their livestock suffer. That’s exactly what your new antibiotic policy does. All the meat you have been selling up til now has been antibiotic free, all you’ve done now is encourage more suffering.”

Jessica May Phelps: I appreciate your effort to make the products you serve better, and I've always extremely valued a healthier fast-food option when eating out. However, as a veterinary student and someone involved in cattle production; I know the benefits of antibiotic use in our food animals, and do not support your most recent announcement to source only animals that have never received antibiotics! Thankfully due to government regulations and withdrawal times, all meat is antibiotic free, even if that animal received life-saving antibiotics at one point (earlier) in its lifetime. (#isupportAG#responsibleantibioticuse #saveslives)

Make No Mistake
In the midst of the controversy, it’s important for consumers to understand that ALL meat is USDA-inspected to be free of antibiotics before it is sold. The difference in Subway’s position is that animals are to never have received antibiotics.

Whether or not the policy will apply to entire organizations or to individual animals remains to be seen, but it is likely that operations will have to maintain documentation on their management practices.

Titus believes producers could treat an individual animal and remove that animal from the others that haven’t received antibiotics. The treated animals would be marketed through a different channel than the animals that would be antibiotic-free.

“There are established withdrawal times,” Koeman says. “When the product goes to the processing facility, it’s not at any level that has an impact on human health. Also, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does two kinds of sampling.”

The first is a random sampling with in in-plant screening test to identify violative levels. Inspection program personnel (IPP) are to collect and submit tissue samples for inspector-generated residue testing in response to a positive in-plant screening test, and in situations where a public health veterinarian (PHV) has reason to believe that a carcass or its parts may contain violative levels of one or more chemical residues.

Honor System
There is no difference in the meat between animals that have never received antibiotics and animals that received antibiotics that were withdrawn prior to slaughter, as is required by law.

Ironically, Koeman says there is no test that can determine if an animal has been given antibiotics at some point in time. This means Subway is either using this as simply a marketing ploy, or it plans to monitor operations in some way that determines antibiotics are not ever used.

Bottom line, there will be additional costs to raising animals without antibiotics, and additional resources will be required (extra pens to hold treated animals, additional monitoring by personnel and extensive paperwork). Those costs will ultimately be passed on to consumers.

“If you’re part of an antibiotic-free pipeline, animals that get antibiotics are identified by a different tag,” says Titus.

Koeman says, “An animal with clinical disease would be identified and wouldn’t go through the system, but subclinical disease would not necessarily be identified. You may have lung lesions and when you see the lung, there is the potential for increased food safety risk.”

USFRA is working with its affiliates and partners to get some clarity on this issue. In the meantime, Titus believes there is action all producers can take.

“The best action all farmers and ranchers can take is stay active in the social media space, make your concerns known to Subway, and make sure your friends and neighbors are doing the same. It’s a collective effort on the part of the industry because everyone has a stake in this,” Titus says. “More than 2.5 billion people access social media every day. We need to reach out to consumers who may have concerns. It’s part of our job and our daily chore schedule to help keep consumers informed every day.”