On Monday, Chick-fil-A announced that it has been forced to change its no antibiotics policy that was implemented 10 years ago and fully enforced about five years ago. The fast food company will shift from a “No Antibiotics Ever” policy to a “No Antibiotics Important To Human Medicine.” The public has pretty much freaked out about this, wondering if they should avoid Chick-fil-A because of these new policy shifts. But what does this actually mean?

What does no antibiotics really mean?

Many poultry companies claim to be antibiotic-free, and it works because of the public’s lack of knowledge on the nuances of this topic. According to a 2019 Consumer Reports survey, 53% of respondents believed that this claim should mean that no antibiotics of any kind were given to the animal.

Meat or poultry that is antibiotic-free is desirable because of the relatively recent realization that eating foods that have antibiotics in them makes our bodies less resistant to antibiotics when we need them. The long-term consequence of this is that if you get a slight infection, you could be in major health trouble because your body is immune to the antibiotics that would cure the infection.

Phrases like “no antibiotics ever,” “raised without antibiotics,” or “never given antibiotics” do actually mean what they say. The animals were truly never given antibiotics, and if they got sick and required them, they would no longer fall into this category.

What Chick-fil-A is shifting to is a “no antibiotics important to human medicine,” or “no medically important antibiotics” policy.

This means that the meat or poultry was not given any antibiotics that are common for humans to take, like amoxicillin or penicillin. But antibiotics are still put into the chickens and can still increase antibiotic resistance. Chick-fil-A is not the only fast food chain in this category. Wendy’s, McDonald's, and KFC have always used this policy, and last July, food processing company Tyson made the same shift.

Why do chickens need antibiotics?

Chickens need antibiotics in the first place because the conditions they live in are utterly horrible. The coops are incredibly overcrowded and allow for very little movement — imagine living your entire life on a completely packed subway.

These living conditions cause a lot of diseases; farmers used to give their chickens antibiotics before they even got sick to prevent the inevitable. Additionally, because chickens spend their whole lives in industrial farms, they aren’t exposed to microbes or outside environmental factors that help strengthen the immune system.

Antibiotics and some other genetic modifications also help chickens grow faster and larger. They are bred to have larger breast and thigh muscles — parts of the chicken that are most in demand. Because the breast muscles on the chicken are so unnaturally big, chickens have a lessened lung capacity and are prone to respiratory infections that require antibiotics. If you’re appalled by the Chick-fil-A news, then you need to watch The Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that sheds light on the issues of industrial farming.

The lack of public knowledge on this topic stems from how disconnected we are from what we eat in terms of our protein. Ground meats or meat cuts are completely separated from the animal they came from in our minds, they come in shapes we only recognize as something to eat. We can’t crucify Chick-fil-A without interrogating the ways that we buy and consume poultry individually. Is everything we’re buying at the grocery store antibiotic free? Do we pay enough attention to it?

In our heightened political state it's difficult to prioritize advocacy for consumer transparency and more humane agriculture, but it's an issue that deserves time, attention, and interrogation.