Branding With Purpose: KFC Weans Its Chicken Off Drugs

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KFC restaurant

In a victory for consumers and chickens (and its brand), Kentucky Fried Chicken is committing to phasing out chicken raised with antibiotics important to human medicine in its U.S. stores by the end of 2018.

As the biggest U.S. chicken QSR chain to expand its drug-free commitment beyond boneless to chicken on the bone, the Yum-owned brand is broadening its food promise and purpose to consumers.

KFC chicken

“We’re constantly working to meet the changing preferences of our customers, while ensuring we deliver on the value they expect from KFC. Offering chicken raised without medically important antibiotics is the next step in that journey,” stated Kevin Hochman, president and chief concept officer for KFC U.S.

“Making this change was complex and took a lot of planning. It required close collaboration with more than 2,000 farms, most of them family-owned and managed, in more than a dozen U.S. states where they raise our chickens.”

The move by the #1 chicken-on-the-bone quick service restaurant in America follows lobbying by the Natural Resources Defense Council almost one year ago urging KFC to improve its antibiotics policies. The NRDC, naturally, is thrilled.

“KFC’s new policy will be a game-changer for the fast food industry and public health,” stated Lena Brook, food policy advocate at NRDC. “While federal antibiotics policy stagnates, the market is responding to consumer demand for better meat. This commitment from the nation’s most iconic fast food chicken chain will have a major impact on the way the birds are raised in the U.S. and in the fight against the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections.”

“KFC’s promise is especially important because the company only purchases a portion of the chickens from any given flock, due to standards for the birds they buy,” Brook added in a blog post. “This means its change in policy will affect a larger number of chickens than what the company purchases itself, since farmers have to raise all the birds in the same barn the same way.”

KFC cites research showing that more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use on livestock and poultry and more than 96 percent of those drugs are regularly distributed en masse in feed or water. Furthermore, the drugs are often used on animals that are not sick to speed up growth and help survival in the horrific conditions on industrial farms.

By one estimate, 2 million Americans suffer from antibiotic-resistant infections annually with at least 23,000 dying as a result according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beyond the NRDC, other lobby groups including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Food Animals Concern Trust, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumers Union called out KFC on its antibiotics policy including delivery of more than 350,000 petitions to the company last summer.

“Antibiotics should only be used to treat disease and not wasted on healthy livestock to make them grow faster or survive filthy conditions on factory farms,” stated Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.”

“It’s time for all fast food restaurants to help ensure antibiotics keep working by rejecting meat and poultry suppliers who misuse these vital drugs.”

Committing to healthier ingredients is table stakes for big food brands today. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chick fil-A, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have made various commitments to sourcing chickens raised with fewer or no antibiotics, just to focus on that protein. KFC’s commitment brings the total of top fast-food and -casual restaurant chains in the U.S. now committed to some level of responsible antibiotics use for their chicken supply to 11 out of 15.

As Consumerist notes, “Reducing antibiotic overuse in chickens is important, but only represents one facet of the issue. Fast food chains are already feeling the pressure to curb antibiotics in the beef and pork they buy, but that change — if it happens — will take more time. A chicken now reaches market weight in less than two months, while beef cattle may need up to two years.”

KFC $20 fill up chicken bucket

Every week brings more news of major restaurant brands committing to better-for-you product. Papa John’s, for example, is trialing new ingredients and just launched two pilot programs using organic produce and gluten-free crusts in select U.S. locations, focused on four toppings (Roma tomatoes, green peppers, yellow onions, and mushrooms) available in the Lexington, Ky. market. Its gluten-free crust will be available in four Los Angeles, Phoenix, Nashville and St. Louis.

“We just think this is a trend that is going to be out there, and we want to be the first in our industry to have organic produce on our menu,” Papa John’s chief ingredients officer Sean Muldoon told Fortune. Papa John’s has committed to spending $100 million annually on fresher ingredients.

When consumer taste and conscience coalesce, industry changes are inevitable—if brands have the courage and conviction to align their purpose and practices.

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