Fast-food chains are increasingly marketing their products using terms that consumers concerned about factory farming and unhealthy practices might find more favorable. But food terms and labels vary greatly in meaning. “Natural,” for example, means a product can contain no artificial ingredients or added color, but federal guidelines say it can be “minimally processed.” Yet there’s no standard definition of what “minimally processed” means. The term “sustainable” can also be ambiguous given that use of the word isn’t regulated by the USDA. Let’s take a look at whether the latest marketing appeals are a case of restaurants pulling a fast one on fast-foodies.
Product: Subway’s ‘Antibiotic-Free’ Chicken Sandwich
In March of this year, Subway rolled out a rotisserie-style chicken sandwich it’s touting as “raised without antibiotics,” and set a goal to phase out all antibiotics in its meat by 2025. The term taps into a consumer concern that the ubiquitous use of antibiotics on livestock can lead to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” or bacteria in humans. Antibiotics are often routinely given to factory-farmed livestock to keep disease risk lower among stressed, crowded animals.
How meaningful is the label “raised without antibiotics”? The USDA does define the term as meat from animals not given antibiotics. Seems straightforward—but if producers rotate chickens given routine antibiotics with “antibiotic-free” chickens, the latter flock may still have access to litter left in the barns containing the antibiotics. Perhaps more importantly, the term doesn’t give consumers much information about how the animals or poultry—chickens, in this case—were raised and what they were fed. The chicken may very well still have been factory-farmed.
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Subway’s claim could be bolstered with added transparency. Nowhere in Subway’s sourcing info or marketing materials does the chain list any of its chicken producers. The Natural Resources Defense Council, while applauding Subway’s move generally, says the chain’s claims would also be more meaningful if third-party verification were included. “Consumers are asked to take Subway at their word that their new chicken products are indeed produced without routine antibiotics,” says Lena Brook, food policy advocate at the environmental activist organization. “Third-party verification can also increase confidence that animals raised without antibiotics are living in high welfare conditions that are less crowded, less stressful, and with improved diets.”
Product: ‘Cage-Free’ Eggs at McDonald’s
In late 2015, McDonald’s announced that it would transition to “cage-free” eggs in its U.S. and Canadian restaurants over the next 10 years. The behemoth fast-food chain accounts for 4 percent of all U.S. egg sales, purchasing about 2 billion eggs annually. Only about 10 percent of eggs currently produced in this country are laid by cage-free hens—and the rest are laid by hens kept in what are known as battery cages, often considered an inhumane form of confinement in which hens are given only 67 square inches of cage space their entire lives.
So what is the impact of the “cage-free” spaces? The Humane Society of the United States says “cage-free” systems can lead to better lives for the hens, but they aren’t enough to ensure higher welfare or “cruelty-free” eggs. For that, you’d want eggs that are labeled “free range,” “pasture-raised” or “certified organic.”
Most cage-free eggs come from hens that are still raised in enormous flocks of thousands of birds that never go outside. The birds may, however, be able to engage in limited natural behaviors, such as dust baths.
Product: Carl’s Jr.’s ‘All-Natural’ Burger
In December 2014, Carl’s Jr. (called Hardee’s in a portion of the U.S.) released its “All-Natural Burger,” which the chain says includes a “grass-fed, free-range charbroiled beef patty with no added hormones, steroid or antibiotics.” But depending on the exact label and verification guidelines, “grass fed” does not necessarily mean “grass finished,” so cattle could still be fattened up on, say, genetically modified corn before being processed.
So is this meat really from grass-fed/grass-finished cattle? It turns out that it is. The meat is imported from Australia, because the chain says there isn’t enough supply of 100 percent grass-fed beef here to meet its needs. But what about the term “all-natural”? The claim applies only to the burger patty, and not to the rest of the product. Carl’s Jr. does specify this, but only in fine print on its website; the marketing campaign and name of the product could easily suggest to consumers that the whole sandwich is all-natural. When you take into account the bun and condiments, the menu item includes high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, and soy byproducts likely to be from genetically modified soybeans. The meat patty does stack up to scrutiny though—unless you prefer local producers.
Chains such as Subway, McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. may be taking baby steps toward more sustainable ingredients in their quest to offer some better, healthier fast food items. But consumers should dig into their claims carefully so they know what they’re getting.
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