Darden Restaurants, the nation’s largest restaurant company and owner of Olive Garden, is facing pressure from investors Thursday at its annual shareholder meeting to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in its supply chain, a practice that can fuel the spread of drug resistant bacteria.
The shareholder proposal, presented by Green Century Capital Management, comes after Darden was sent a letter signed by a coalition of investors managing more than $1 trillion in assets that urged the company to end the routine use of antibiotics important to human medicine in its global meat and poultry supply chains. A similar letter was sent to nine other leading restaurant companies, including Domino’s Pizza Group and Brinker International Restaurants.
“Olive Garden is in the perfect storm of investor concern and consumer demand for meat raised without routine antibiotics,” says Matthew Wellington, field director with U.S. PIRG Antibiotics Program. “Making this change should be a no brainer, it’s good business and it’s good for our health.”
Around 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use in livestock and poultry production. The drugs are often given routinely to animals that aren’t sick in order to promote growth and prevent diseases common in crowded, unsanitary factory farm conditions. This overuse can breed antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can spread to people through contaminated food, human to animal contact, airborne dust and water runoff.
“Darden should stop misleading its shareholders by pretending that its adherence to weak FDA guidelines will significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics in its supply chain.” says Kari Hamerschlag, food and technology program deputy director at Friends of the Earth. “Restaurants need to get out in front of weak and voluntary guidelines in order to keep antibiotics working.”
The FDA’s voluntary guidelines encourage the phasing out of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes but still allow the prophylactic use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick to prevent diseases that may arise from poor conditions and diets—so long as a veterinarian approves them.
Many major restaurant chains have responded to growing consumer preferences and adopted policies that move beyond weaker FDA guidelines including Subway, Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle and, most recently, Wendy’s, according to a new report by Friends of the Earth and allies.
“There’s a perception that ‘sit down’ restaurants serve a higher-end product than fast food chains,” Wellington says. “But in this case it’s McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A that are raising the bar, and Olive Garden that’s falling short. We’re hoping to change that.”
Last spring, a coalition of environmental, consumer, and animal welfare groups delivered a petition signed by more than 130,000 consumers urging Olive Garden to improve sourcing practices and go beyond the lackluster FDA guidelines with a strong policy that eliminates the routine use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick for both growth promotion and disease prevention. Olive Garden recently received an F grade in Chain Reaction, a report and scorecard that grades restaurant’s policies on antibiotics.