Customers Are Freaking Out About Chick-fil-A Dropping Their ‘No Antibiotic’ Pledge: But What Does it Actually Mean?

March 28, 2024
4 mins read
Customers Are Freaking Out About Chick-fil-A Dropping Their 'No Antibiotic' Pledge: But What Does it Actually Mean?

Chick-fil-A fans went into a tizzy after the fast food chain announced they’d be stepping back from their “No Antibiotics Ever” pledge.

In a statement on their website on March 21, the fast food brand wrote, “To maintain supply of the high-quality chicken you expect from us, Chick-fil-A will shift from No Antibiotics Ever (NAE) to No Antibiotics Important To Human Medicine (NAIHM) starting in the Spring of 2024.”

NAE means no antibiotics of any kind were used in raising the animal. NAIHM restricts the use of those antibiotics that are important to human medicine and commonly used to treat people, and allows use of animal antibiotics only if the animal and those around it were to become sick,” the statement added.

Related: Chick-fil-A Rolls Out Test Menu With 6 Different Pizza Options

Fair enough—but what does this mean for you as a consumer?

Honestly, on a practical level, probably not much.

“The shift from ‘No Antibiotics Ever’ (NAE) to ‘No Antibiotics Important To Human Medicine’ (NAIHM) means Chick-fil-A will allow the use of some antibiotics in their chicken supply that are not critical to human health, as opposed to their previous policy of completely refraining from any antibiotics,” Claire Rifkin, MS, RDN, women’s health dietitian and founder of the telehealth private practice Claire Rifkin Nutrition, LLC, says. “Chickens are given antibiotics to prevent, control and treat bacterial infections. In some agricultural practices, they are also used to promote growth and improve feed efficiency.”

Part of why chicken and other poultry are often given antibiotics as a preventive measure against bacteria, Michelle Rauch, MSc, RDN, says, is because infections “can and will spread quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions where commercial chickens are often raised.”

Related: Chick-fil-A Replacing Menu Item With Perfect Spring Addition

“Antibiotics are administered to keep the chickens healthy and ultimately ensure a higher survival rate and better growth rates for the chickens,” Rauch adds. “Some attempts are made to reduce crowding conditions with settings such as free range, cage-free and free roaming to offer periods to reduce crowding but do not ultimately eliminate risk of infection.”

Even chicken with antibiotics may not have too much of the drug in their system by the time you eat them. “Per the USDA, while antibiotics are used to prevent disease in poultry farming, before a bird is slaughtered, a ‘withdrawal’ period is required from the time the antibiotics were last administered to ensure that there is no residue in the chicken’s system,” Rauch says. “The USDA routinely samples poultry products to ensure they are free from that residue which they report is rare occurrence and removed from the food supply chain if found.”

The National Chicken Council explains that the only time poultry farmers will use antibiotics that are also used in humans is if a bird is ill with a specific condition called necrotic enteritis, which affects their intestines and can be deadly.

Chick-fil-A’s stance means they’ll treat bacterial illnesses in their chickens with antibiotics, but they’re not going to stuff their birds full of unnecessary medications, and they won’t use chickens treated with antibiotics used in humans.

That said, you’ve probably eaten chicken with antibiotics already, just from other restaurants or suppliers.

According to Dr. Neil Parikh, MD, chief innovation officer for Connecticut Gastroenterology, chief of gastroenterology for Hartford Hospital and clinical professor at UConn, the type of antibiotics being used is key here.

“The FDA classifies antimicrobials as those important for human medicine or not important for human medicine. If the antibiotics we are discussing here are not deemed important for human health, then the overall concern is significantly mitigated,” he explains. “An example of these non-human medicine antibiotics are ionophores—these are used for poultry but not used in human medicine. This distinction is key because then we worry less about the potential for antimicrobial drug resistance.”

However, he says, if the antibiotics being deployed are those that are also used in human medicine, now we suddenly increase the risk of generating bacteria that are already exposed to these drugs in the chicken and thus potentially less effective when we as humans need them. “This is the fear of antibiotic drug resistance. If this were to happen, then this risk would apply to everyone, including those with gut health issues, but especially those who have chronic illnesses or are immunosuppressed.”

Dr. Parikh notes that human medicine antibiotics, especially recurring courses, can mess with the bacteria in your gut microbiome (which may explain why, for example, you might get an upset stomach when you’re on a Z-Pack).

“By avoiding antibiotics used in human medicine, we avoid these concerns,” he says. “In this context, avoiding any human medicine antibiotics in chicken would, theoretically, also be beneficial.”

Again: Because Chick-fil-A’s new pledge is to eschew antibiotics used in human medicine, the chance of any risk is small.

This doesn’t mean that overall antibiotic use in poultry and livestock is great news, but for most people—especially people who consume fast food often—its impact on health is likely minimal compared to, say, the impact of eating fast food regularly versus an overall healthier diet.

Related: 11 Best Chick-fil-A Menu Items, Ranked

What if you want chicken without antibiotics at all? Chances are you’ll have to avoid fast food entirely and opt for organic poultry.

“In order to get a poultry product that has not been given antibiotics (with exception to while still in the egg on its first day of life in the hatchery), organic chickens and turkeys cannot be given any further antibiotics in order use the Department of Agriculture’s organic seal on their labels,” Rauch explains. “If there is a claim on a poultry product, ‘raised without antibiotics’ in conjunction with a USDA organic label, it means no antibiotics were used at any time for that product. If at any point an antibiotic is administered to address an illness in the bird, it can no longer be deemed organic.”

Long story short: Most of the chicken we consume has probably been given a small amount of antibiotics for food safety reasons. And that’s certainly true if you’re a regular fast food consumer. Because fast food in general isn’t exactly great for you, well, antibiotics are probably the least of your concerns.

Next, The Unhealthiest Menu Item at Chick-fil-A, According to Registered Dietitians

Sources

National Chicken CouncilNeil Parikh, MDMichelle Rauch, MSc, RDNClaire Rifkin, MS, RDNUSDA

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