Activists call on Darden to limit antibiotics, boost worker pay

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Dozens of activist groups, emboldened by recent policy shifts at major U.S. restaurants, are demanding that Olive Garden owner Darden Restaurants Inc change its food and labor practices.

Their sweeping agenda, part of a campaign called “Good Food Now,” includes calls for the nation’s largest full-service restaurant operator to strengthen its antibiotics policy and boost pay for employees.

McDonald’s USA last year committed to a timeline for moving to chicken raised without antibiotics vital to fighting human infections and to boosting average hourly pay for about 90,000 workers in its company-owned restaurants.

Darden has vowed to phase out meat from farm animals that are fattened up with antibiotics that are important to human medicine by the end of this year. All of its suppliers will use human and animal antibiotics only to treat, prevent and control animal illness under the supervision of a veterinarian.

McDonald’s has gone further by promising to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in chicken production, said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Friends of the Earth’s food and technology program.

That is key to preventing the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, she said.

The bacteria are linked to an estimated 23,000 human deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the United States. International alarm about the superbug threat is rising after the discovery in China of a gene called mcr-1, which makes bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics.

McDonald’s already is influencing the way food is produced in the United States and “it’s important that Darden also exerts that kind of pressure on the supply chain,” Hamerschlag said.

Darden operates seven different brands - including LongHorn Steakhouse, Yard House, Eddie V’s and Seasons 52. Customers of those chains have vastly different preferences, said Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers.

Its upscale Seasons 52 restaurants already serve no-antibiotics-ever poultry and further changes will come at “a pace that’s right for our business,” Jeffers said.

The activists also are calling for other sweeping changes.

“Olive Garden needs to meet consumer demand by sourcing more ingredients from local farmers and paying all workers, including those in its supply chain, fairly,” said Elizabeth Jardim, director of consumer advocacy at Green America.

“We’re committed to doing business the right way, and expect the same from our suppliers,” said Jeffers, who added that Darden’s non-salary employees, on average, earn nearly $15 per hour.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Grebler