It's something of an unspoken rule on the West Coast: Don't get between Californians and their In-N-Out. But despite the enduringness of that axiom, consumer groups are now doing just that. The fast food chain, known for its commitment to vintage aesthetics and its promise never to use frozen ingredients, is under fire this week for using beef that has been treated with antibiotics. Many farms keep livestock on a low dose of antibiotics to increase the animals' body weight, although the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has said that "there is strong evidence that some antibiotic resistance in bacteria is caused by antibiotic use in food animals."
Chains like Chipotle already claim to be antibiotic free, and others, like McDonald's, are reducing antibiotic use in response to pressure from consumer groups, who worry that chains are contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."
More than 50 consumer groups have signed a letter to In-N-Out. In a statement released on Wednesday, the groups emphasized corporate responsibility:
"This overuse of antibiotics in livestock production contributes to the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections that claim at least 23,000 lives each year. Major restaurant chains can influence their meat suppliers to adopt better practices by committing to purchase meat only from farms that don't abuse life-saving medicines."
Companies that are asked to shift their purchasing habits may be worried about the bottom line, but, as Francie Diep wrote for Pacific Standard in 2015, the cost of change isn't very high:
Even in the event of a complete ban on production-purpose antibiotics, wholesale meat prices would only rise by one percent, according to the report. That's because the medicines don't make animals gain as much weight as previously thought, and because enough farms already eschew production-purpose antibiotics. Overall, the report's results suggest there's not a big economic cost to shifting away from feeding food animals antibiotics to fatten them.
Companies may even have an economic incentive to serve antibiotic-free meat. McDonald's announced that it would transition to antibiotic-free chicken after a year of lowered revenue, as more customers looked for fresh and healthy food. It seems a similar push from consumers has moved In-N-Out to action. In an email response to Reuters, Keith Brazeau, the vice president of quality for In-N-Out, wrote:
"Our company is committed to beef that is not raised with antibiotics important to human medicine and we've asked our suppliers to accelerate their progress towards establishing antibiotic alternatives."
So for conscious consumers worried about superbugs, the old saying holds true: Vote with your wallet.