Chick-fil-A announced yesterday that the company planned to serve chicken raised without antibiotics in restaurants nationwide within the next five years. The switch may be game changing for the fast food industry, but has been a long time coming for the chicken chain.
Three years ago, the wheels of change began spinning when health blogger and activist Vani Hari penned a post titled “Chick-fil-A or Chemical-Fil-A?” Hari had already challenged the nutritional value of the food at other restaurants, including frozen yogurt chain Yoforia and burrito chain Chipotle. When she discovered that Chick-fil-A's chicken sandwich contained almost 100 ingredients, she found her next target for investigation.
With the growth of social media, chains cannot afford to ignore uproar over health issues. When Hari took on Kraft for its artificial dyes in its mac and cheese, she says that stock of Annie’s, a producer of a popular organic macaroni and cheese, skyrocketed. Chick-fil-A, which is seen by many as a healthier option than other fast food chains, couldn’t afford to lose out to competitors.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A invited Hari to come to the company’s headquarters to discuss solutions. After an aborted first attempt (it was the week that the company’s PR director died and president Dan Cathy drew criticism for his opposition to gay marriage), Hari finally visited headquarters in October.
“By then I had created a really good list of things I wanted to tackle,” says Hari. “I told them a quick win would be to remove artificial food dyes from their menu… However, the first top priority would be to provide antibiotic free chicken.”
Hari’s focus on antibiotic free meat stemmed from her attendance as a delegate from North Carolina at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “The leaders of our free world felt this was really the No. 1 issue,” says Hari.
As it has become to norm for farmers to feed healthy animals antibiotics to force weight gain, concern has increased regarding the growing level of drug-resistant bacteria. “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” according to Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization. Canada and several European countries have banned the use of antibiotics in food animals. However, in the U.S. no fast food chains are antibiotics free, and antibiotics-free fast-casuals Chipotle, Panera and Jason’s Deli remain anomalies among national chains.
While antibiotics free chicken was Hari’s No. 1 priority, Chick-fil-A first targeted the quick win: artificial dyes. In December, the chain announced it had removed yellow dye from its chicken soup recipe and was working to remove high fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients from products. While Hari was thrilled, she continued to openly discuss the antibiotics issues in press surrounding the shift.
On Tuesday, Chick-fil-A showed willingness to do more than quick fixes with a plan to serve chicken raised without antibiotics within five years.
"A shift this significant will take some time, as it requires changes along every point of the supply chain – from the hatchery to the processing plant,” said Chick-fil-A’s executive vice president in a statement.
“It’s a testament to what can happen if you’re really persistent and have an amazing group of people who follow you who care not only about what they’re eating, but what everyone is eating—what’s in their food supply,” Hari says.
Hari hopes that Chick-fil-A’s change will cause a chain reaction in other fast food restaurants.
“That’s really the whole point: to inspire change across the industry,” Hari says. “KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc. are all going to go on notice now. Chick-fil-A, that’s their competitor. If they’re moving toward antibiotic free chicken, the rest of the industry better listen up too.”
A number of chains have taken on nutrition and sustainability in recent months. Subway, another one of Hari’s targets, removed azodicarbonamide last week following one of Hari’s petitions. Earlier in 2014, McDonald’s announced plans to begin purchasing “verified sustainable” beef by 2016. However, even as these changes are made, food activists like Hari remain adamant that there is always more work to be done.
With that in mind, what’s Hari’s next hope for Chick-fil-A?
“I would love for them to make an organic option – a 100 percent organic option,” Hari says. “I think they would see a huge demand.”