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Subway Joins The Fast-Food, Antibiotic-Free Meat Club

Diners wait in line at a Subway sandwich shop on September 15, 2015 in Chicago, Ill. Subway will serve antibiotic-free turkey and chicken by the end of 2016, but it may take nine years for its suppliers of beef and pork to go antibiotic-free as well.

The parade of fast-food companies promising to sell meat from animals that never received antibiotics just got significantly longer. Subway, the ubiquitous sandwich chain, is following the lead of Chipotle, Panera, Chick-fil-A and McDonalds, with its promise Tuesday that its meat suppliers gradually will go antibiotic-free.

In one respect, in fact, Subway is going further than McDonald's and Chick-fil-A, which have promised only to serve antibiotic-free poultry. Subway is laying out a timetable for its suppliers of beef and pork to go antibiotic-free as well.

Getting adequate supplies of such beef and pork, however, appears to be more difficult, and will take longer, than accomplishing the same task with poultry. According to Subway's statement, the "transition to chicken raised without antibiotics will be completed by the end of 2016." Beef and pork, however, will take until 2025.

The reason is simple. Antibiotic poultry production is now mainstream. Big poultry producers like Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride are gradually getting rid of antibiotics that are used in human medicine. (The use of medically useful antibiotics in agriculture is controversial because it increases the chances that bacteria will become resistant to those drugs, rendering those drugs useless against some infections.)

Perdue Farms, which has led the poultry industry's move away from antibiotics, says that 95 percent of its chickens already receive no human antibiotics, and more than half of its chickens receive no antibiotics at all.

Pork and beef, however, have been a different story. Most large-scale hog operations and feedlots still rely at least occasionally on the use of antibiotics.

Subway has been under fierce attack by some opponents of antibiotic use in agriculture, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe.

In a statement, NRDC's Lena Brook praised the fast-food chain's move, calling it "a strong plan that will help the company live up to the healthy image it has long-cultivated."

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