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Subway's Making Good on Its Promise to Ditch Antibiotics

Starting with its chicken.

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A Subway Buffalo chicken sandwich.
A Subway Buffalo chicken sandwich.

The world's biggest restaurant chain is making good on its promise to ditch antibiotics. Starting Monday, February 29, Subway will begin serving antibiotic-free "rotisserie-style" chicken at all of its 27,000-plus restaurants across the United States.

According to Subway, said chicken will be "hand-pulled" in the restaurants and will not contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. How does it compare to the sketchy poultry that's currently being served at the chain? The new sandwich meat has a reasonably short ingredient list, containing just white meat chicken along with seasoning, "rotisserie chicken flavor" (including chicken broth, skins, salt, xanthan gum, and maltodextrin), and spices. The chain's current chicken patties are decidedly more processed in nature, containing chicken rib meat along with a laundry list of flavoring ingredients, as well as potato starch and carrageenan, a thickener.

Following this menu rollout, Subway will introduce antibiotic-free white meat chicken strips on April 1; going forward, the company also intends to source turkey, pork, and beef that are raised antibiotic-free. The chain has also announced it will switch to cage-free eggs by 2025.

Past sales numbers for Subway have prompted speculation that the chain may be losing out to what are perceived as "healthier," more upscale fast-casual options, such as (pre-E. coli) Chipotle or Blaze Pizza. Subway's U.S. sales were $11.9 billion in 2014, a 3 percent decline from the year before. By moving toward higher-quality proteins for its sandwiches, it seems Subway's trying to bridge the gap between its own fast-food model and the kind of fast-casual places that consumers are currently flocking to.

As the world's biggest restaurant chain, Subway's switch to cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meats will no doubt have a sizable impact on the agricultural industry; fellow corporate giant McDonald's has also pledged to stop serving meat from chickens treated with human-grade antibiotics, and that could spell good things for the chickens themselves. "Whether its switching to antibiotic-free chicken, using fewer chickens by adding plant-based proteins like falafel, or switching to eggs from chickens not confined in cages, our feathered friends certainly seem high on Subway’s agenda," says Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director for the Humane Society. "And that’s a good thing, since they’re probably the most abused, most drugged-up, and certainly most-slaughtered animals in all of agribusiness. These changes represent a definite sea change in how the food sector views and treats the humble hen."

It also signals a major shift for a chain that was blasted for serving "yoga mat chemical" bread back in 2014; following that debacle — which was led by dubious nutrition blogger FoodBabe — the chain pledged to axe all artificial ingredients from its menu by 2017. That move is reflective of the food industry as a whole right now: Consumers are demanding more natural foods (even if the term "natural" doesn't actually mean anything when it comes to food labels) and big chains and food manufacturers are responding in kind, with everyone from General Mills and Nestle to Pizza Hut and Taco Bell pledging to ditch artificial ingredients.