In a surprising and rare instance of positive publicity for Chick-fil-A, the fast-food giant announced yesterday that it’s going to stop using chickens raised with antibiotics in all of its restaurants within the next five years. That’s a lot of chickens -- worth 282 million sandwiches, or 141 million birds, according to the company’s 2010 figures. And for a business known for adhering to the worst of fast-food practices -- in terms of unhealthfulness, use of factory farming and its mistreatment of employees -- the news is certainly a reason to celebrate.
But is that enough to forgive the company's past (and present) sins? Maybe not. In eliminating the use of antibiotics, the company is for once aligned with a traditionally liberal cause, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be called progressive. Let's review:
Chick-fil-A, broadly speaking, is kind of the worst. We saw that most clearly back in 2012 when, speaking on behalf of the company, president Dan Cathy admitted he was “guilty as charged” for supporting traditional, “biblical” marriage. The comments set off a firestorm of criticism, prompting those at odds with the company’s “values” to organize nationwide boycotts of the restaurant’s 1,700-plus locations, stage a “Same Sex Kiss Day,” and drive donations to gay and lesbian rights organizations.
Since making the incendiary comments, Cathy has been promoted to CEO, and last anyone checked, he's still an unapologetic homophobe. While a leader’s political opinions are not necessarily representative of the company at large -- “Dan Cathy, like everyone in this country, has his own views,” wrote a Chick-fil-A spokesperson after the controversy first erupted -- the fact that the the company's charity division, WinShape, donates millions to anti-gay groups complicates that narrative. Chick-fil-A, on the whole, is still committed to conservative Christian values.
Capitalizing on the company's rash of bad publicity in 2012, animal rights activists were quick to point out that, like most restaurants, Chick-fil-A isn’t so great to its chickens either. Poultry production, so far as standard industry practice goes, involves keeping the birds in dirty, cramped conditions until the hour of their slaughter. (That is, if they don’t die of neglect and disease first.) The overuse of antibiotics, in many ways, comes about as a result of these unhealthy conditions.
That last problem is one of the most important issues worth addressing right now. In the standard factory farm system, antibiotics are distributed widely and indiscriminately to livestock in order to prevent disease and promote growth. The amount of antibiotics used in meat and poultry production more than quadruples the amount sold for human use, and meat is believed to be a significant force behind the worrisome rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The FDA’s recently announced phaseout of certain antibiotics is completely voluntary, and is widely accused of doing little more than paying lip service to the problem.
Getting rid of those antibiotics throws a wrench in the entire system; for a major company to commit to such a measure is a huge move, and its significance shouldn’t be downplayed. Going antibiotic-free will require Chick-fil-A's national and regional suppliers to work with the USDA to reform their practices, which explains why the company is giving itself five years to get things rolling. “A shift this significant will take some time, as it requires changes along every point of the supply chain – from the hatchery to the processing plant,” Tim Tassopoulos, executive vice president of operations, said in a statement. Once the change happens, it can potentially pave the way for an overhaul of industry practice and, as Consumerist explains, even shift demand toward birds raised antibiotic-free. Smaller companies, even those that make a point of adhering to ethical and sustainable practices, could never hope to have as much clout.
Cathy framed the move to antibiotic-free as a different show of the company's commitment to tradition. "Since our family business began 67 years ago, we have focused on our customers. It's why we insist upon using the highest quality ingredients," he said in a statement. "We want to continue that heritage, and offering antibiotic-free chicken is the next step."
What it really is, of course, is a P.R. stunt -- one that could be particularly effective as our culture moves toward increasing scrutiny of food. Call it the Chipotle effect: Consumers may be willing to overlook plenty of other transgressions, should a company make a big show out of this one issue, and position itself as more ethical than its competitors.
However, this is still fast food we’re talking about. As Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, told the New York Times, a big announcement about better practices “doesn’t mean the products are necessarily any more nutritious.” Getting rid of antibiotics, high-fructose corn syrup and potentially dangerous food additives doesn’t mean that Chick-fil-A is suddenly selling a significantly superior fried chicken sandwich; it still boasts, among its many ingredients, the petroleum-based preservative TBHQ. And at 440 calories, 18 grams of fat, 1,390 mg of sodium, it’s contributing to a whole different sort of public health crisis.