A group of powerful City investors who together control more than £700 billion have written to leading fast food, pub and restaurant chains urging them to take immediate action to reduce antibiotic use in their meat and poultry supply chains.
The financiers, including Aviva Investors, Strathclyde Pension Fund and Coller Capital, are particularly concerned about the use of antibiotics classified as “critically important” to human health and the “routine, preventative” use of drugs on factory farms.
Experts believe their use on farm animals is linked via the food chain to the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
The investors are worried that growing consumer awareness of the issues could damage the companies’ reputations and so hit their own bottom lines.
Some of the companies contacted, such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza – both US owned – say they have already begun to develop policies for tackling antibiotic use on farms.
Others that were sent letters included pub giants JD Wetherspoon, and the company behind the Harvester, All Bar One and Toby Carvery chains, Mitchells & Butlers – both UK owned – and Burger King.
The unprecedented move follows warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that antibiotic use in livestock production is contributing to the global threat of a “post-antibiotic era”.
Jeremy Coller, the founder of Coller Capital, said: “These large food companies are key ingredients in the portfolios of most of our pensions and savings – thus it is a case of proper risk management to ask them to work out how they will meet this challenge.”
“The world is changing, regulation on antibiotic use is set to tighten and consumer preferences are shifting away from factory farmed food. As stewards of these food companies and responsible investors, we want to protect both human health and shareholder value.”
Abigail Herron, of Aviva Investors, one of the letters’ signatories, added: “Antibiotics are precious commodities and should be spent wisely.”
The shareholder action comes as new research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals an increase in veterinary sales of “critically important” antibiotics in recent years, despite the potential health risks.
Other new figures obtained by the Bureau also suggest there has been an increase in cases of a drug resistant strain of campylobacter, Britain’s most widespread foodborne illness. Campaigners argue this is a medical consequence of continued inaction on the issue.
The Bureau launched an investigation late last year into the use of antibiotics on farmyard animals, with experts claiming there are serious consequences for human health.
“Antibiotics are precious commodities and should be spent wisely” – Abigail Herron, Aviva Investors
The investors’ letter, sent last month, was prompted by worries that increasing scrutiny of food production is leading to potentially damaging consumer campaigns which could trigger costly regulation.
However, in their letters, they add: “On the other hand, there will be cost savings and reduced disruption for forward looking companies who have established relationships with higher welfare producers.”
The moves follows research by two groups – ShareAction and Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) – into corporate attitudes around antimicrobial resistance.
In a report due tomorrow, the groups say that although perceptions are shifting and the financial risk associated with the over-use of antibiotics is gaining profile, “what remains clear is that a majority of companies operating in the restaurant and fast food sectors currently depend – to varying degrees – on the prophylactic use of antibiotics within their global meat and poultry supply chains”.
In response to the letter, JD Wetherspoon told the Bureau: “The use of artificial growth promoting substances, including antibiotics, is prohibited across all our livestock supply chains.”
Mitchells & Butlers said: “The prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock production is an important issue to Mitchells & Butlers and one that we are reviewing across all species, as part of our Sourcing Policy. We have been working with our poultry suppliers to define our Antibiotic Policy and we are continuing to develop this policy, species by species.”
A spokeswoman for McDonald’s said it announced last year that in its North American operations, it would “only source chickens raised without antibiotics important to human medicine”. For Europe, she added: “Since 2001…we have been monitoring, controlling and reducing the use of antibiotics among chickens in our supply chain.
“In fact, we have a policy which bans the use of the highest priority critically important antibiotics for human medicine (as designated by WHO) in our chicken supply chain by 2018.”
Burger King said in a statement: “We are currently in the process of developing the Sustainability and Responsibility framework for Restaurant Brands International for release in 2016. Our products currently comply with all regulations regarding the use of antibiotics.”
A Domino’s Pizza spokeswoman said: “[Our] suppliers use antibiotics only when necessary to treat diseases. This is done under strict veterinary supervision. Antibiotics are not used to prevent disease or as a growth promoter.”
Meanwhile, a Bureau analysis of veterinary data has found a rise in sales for farm usage of four classes of “critically important” antibiotics between 2008 and 2014, the latest year for which figures are available.
Macrolides, third and fourth generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and aminoglycosides have all seen an increase – despite warnings their use in livestock production should be curtailed.
The WHO classes these antibiotics as “critically important” because they are among the few options doctors have to treat serious infectious diseases in humans.
Sales data for antibiotics in the UK is recorded in a measurement called milligrams per Population Correction Unit, which takes into account the average weight of an animal when it’s treated with the drug and adjusts for the size of each livestock population to allow analysis over the years.
Fluoroquinolones are one of few available treatments for serious food poisoning infections – including Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli – in humans. Veterinary sales increased from 0.27 to 0.34 mg/PCU between 2008 and 2014.
Third and fourth generation cephalosporins are two of a limited number of treatments for Salmonella and E. coli infections in children. Veterinary sales increased from 0.13 to 0.230 mg/PCU between 2008 and 2014.