Vet meets retailer: Getting our message across

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Editor’s note: second in a two-part series.

All consumers want food they can trust and afford. Some want food with “moral attributes” attached, such as raised on a family farm or produced without antibiotics. Often, the livestock industry is so focused on what the consumer may erroneously perceive about us that we forget to explain what we do in a factual and non-apologetic manner. To discuss this issue, four food animal veterinarians sat down with four grocery industry members to bring two perspectives together and discuss common ground.

“We don’t have a direct link to consumers,” says Brad White, DVM, MS, Kansas State University. “We struggle to understand their desires and perceptions. Do they want to know how products were produced and about things like antibiotics? We have the same goal as retailers. We want to figure out how to reach those consumers.”

Build relationships

Before communicating directly with consumers, the livestock industry may want to build relationships with and foster education through food retailers. Jon Seltzer, vice president of Dakota Worldwide, Minneapolis, Minn., a consultant in the food, retail and distribution industries, believes the problem with communication may be in how the industry expresses itself to consumers. “Animal scientists tend to communicate with ‘precision’ science when responding to questions. That’s fine from a scientific standpoint, but a consumer wants a more simple, straightforward answer.”

Those simple answers haven’t been easy for the livestock industry. “We tend to form defensive stances about our practices,” says White. “But what I do on a day-to-day basis is not defensive. Our job is to protect animal health, provide for animal well-being and produce a healthy animal in a good environment. Why would our industry believe in unsanitary conditions, poor environments and feed things that would cause problems? Most of our producers are motivated because they enjoy animal husbandry and practicing good methods of production. The simple answer to consumers about issues like antibiotics is that we use them so we can keep our animals as healthy and as comfortable as they can be,” explains White. “That needs to be the message.”

Messages at the retail level

The information consumers are receiving at the retail level is filtered and
diluted, says Mark Wustenberg, DVM, vice president, Dairy Services, Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore. He believes there are two models consumers are trying to embrace. The one model is more commodity-based and relies on efficiency of production and delivery through the supply chain. The other is one of value addition where the supply chain tries to capture additional value by providing the customer with additional benefits over and above the commodity-driven model. “If you are not capable or committed to including the end user in determining what constitutes additional value and then driving this mess age at all levels of the supply chain, you probably will not be successful with this model,” says Wustenberg.

“This has implications for food safety messages and drug usage that we are trying to communicate through the more commodity-driven channels,” he explains. “If we develop these messages in isolation and then try to just push them up the supply chain by talking to those directly above us, we probably won’t get the desired response.”

“We also can’t forget that not only do we have the safest food chain in the world, but the most cost-effective one,” adds Doug Sumpter, DPS, Inc., a 37-year veteran of the grocery industry. “We have a good supply of food at a cost we can afford.”

Perhaps those simple messages are the best in a time of too much information. “One of the problems today is information overload for consumers,” says Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University, who specializes in feedlot medicine and food animal pharmacology. “It is becoming more clear that the time to actually deliver the message is at the point of sale. How do we put the people who raise and know about the product in contact with the consumer at the point of sale when they are the most receptive to the information?”

Organics — not necessarily the answer

 
Brad White, DVM, MS, says veterinarians and producers need to be proactive and stop being defensive about the food they produce.

Some people would like the livestock industry to shift into natural and organic production. While that may sound idyllic, it’s far from achievable on an industry-wide basis. “There is a perception that we can just say, ‘You know what, we’re going to change our system today,’” says Apley. “But if there’s going to be a change in a system, it’s going to take a lot of time for the industry to transition. The growers will embrace any technology that allows them to reduce antimicrobial use on a very cost-effective basis because that’s what they would like to do. They also take advantage of alternatives such as using the tremendous vaccine development programs we have in place to reduce disease.”

But, adds Daryl Olsen, DVM, Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic, Audubon, Iowa, and president-elect of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, if natural or organic products grow at the current pace, the livestock industry could not supply enough product to feed the growing population. “As we continue to lose land mass out of production, there is no way we can move to less-efficient livestock production. Raising organic pork under current margins is extremely difficult.”

Apley adds that you can raise some of the animals without antibiotics, but you can’t raise all of them without antibiotics. “Consumers believe a producer can buy 100 steers and raise those 100 steers in an organic environment and they are all going to make the program, but in reality, some get sick and drop out,” he says. “When they require therapy, they are going to have to go into a conventional production system.”

Raising cattle in a less-efficient environment isn’t economically sound for producers. Apley says people don’t realize the narrow margins in production. Beef, dairy and swine operations are not rolling in huge profits. “They look at organic and non-traditional production systems and say, ‘What are the potential premiums versus what are the potential costs?’ It’s that simple.”

Wustenberg notes that what is limiting the long-term growth of the organic dairy market in Europe is price. “The implication is that if you drive the price down to the consumer, you will sell more, but it’s not economical to produce it that way.”

Many producers are exploring these options, but like any business, it has to be economically viable, and not everyone is suited for that type of production. “Certain producers are probably inefficient already, and they are looking for higher margins because they can’t live under their current production practices,” says Olsen.

Some operations are seeking ways to produce a natural or organic product, then if the bottom falls out economically, they can take it back into a traditional product. “I don’t think people today know production costs versus the monies they are getting for that product,” says Olsen. “Is the extra premium enough to sustain an inefficient production system?”

Many of the producers going into organic may have struggled to be successful with today’s technology, and they are trying to find the value-added versus the commodity approach. Producers who a re having a real tough time going organic can live without some things but can’t live without others, such as antibiotics, so they call their product ‘natural’ and define it themselves, says Apley. “So, you have people defining their own rules in the playing field, which is incredibly confusing.” “Organic” must comply with USDA organic standards and “natural” is usually minimally-processed but not a formal USDA designation.

The consumer may embrace products the industry may not be able to supply enough of over time. “We are seeing that in the dairy industry,” adds Wustenberg. “I think there are even attempts to source organic ingredients from outside of the country.”

Sumpter believes it goes beyond retail and even into the restaurant trade. “Once you go above casual into fine dining, they will continue using the terms organic, natural and free-range on that menu, and those items do confuse people.”

Is organic food a fad or is it here to stay? Denis Zegar, president of Food For All, Falls Church, Va., a charitable food industry foundation, and a former professor of public policy, George Washington University, thinks it’s a permanent shift. “We’ve started as an agrarian nation with all-natural and organic foods, and it’s ebbed and flowed through time. But now with technology, the Internet and the information flow, I don’t think the trend toward organic food is going to disappear. If it really does take off and we can’t supply the food consumers are demanding, we may get to a point where we are going to have to go to genetically altered products to meet that demand.”

Communication chain

The first step in communicating these concepts is to start talking among ourselves in the food system. A 2002 study by Pork magazine and Philip Morris revealed that there’s an increasing communication disconnect throughout the chain — from producer to packer to processor to retailer and foodservice. Despite this disconnect, every segment indicated that it was interested in more communication with all participants of the chain.

“Having made the transition from being a private practitioner to working in the marketing department with a branded agricultural product, I think only talking to the people you are buying from or selling to is something we have to think about,” suggests Wustenberg. “I think we are very good at delivering the message one step up or back, but not necessarily good about delivering it through the c hain.”

And when it comes to consumers, we must have strategic, uniform information and responses to their questions that they can understand. “We have to be careful as academics and scientists because we have a tendency to pull out all of these great statistical facts to prove our points,” says Zegar. “We need to keep it on a more conceptual level, back to how we have the safest food supply in the world. We need to stay away from a lot of the technical and statistical analyses. As producers, we need to say, ‘We are producing the safest, greatest products.’ And, as the retailer, say, ‘We are here to see to it that you are getting the safest product.’”

Zegar points to Whole Foods and how the chain indicates who the farmer is when you buy its products. “All that does is tell you that’s a family farm,” he notes. “But maybe we need to go and do a little bit more of that type of thing, such as ‘Farmer John tells us a little bit about his farm and how he raises his animals.’ That may be more productive at the store level than almost anything else because the consumer trusts the retailer.

 
Jon Seltzer says it is incumbent upon the industry to work with retailers and their associations to help disseminate information in a form a retailer can share with their employees.

Apley agrees that we don’t communicate effectively. “Sometimes we communicate on the wrong grounds such as controlling disease and animal well-being versus conserving our antimicrobial resources. We’re communicating how we’re balancing those. I don’t think the consumers are as concerned about that decision — they are concerned about the moral decision of whether it’s right to use antibiotics in animals at all. Maybe we need to communicate that it is right to do this and here’s why.”

How we respond is also critical. Wustenberg says the livestock industry tends to be very tactical in the way it responds when challenged. “That indicates the absence of a strong overall strategy,” he says. “With a branded product like we have at Tillamook, you gain a tremendous amount of consumer trust not by addressing specific issues on a tactical basis but by realizing your brand is the total perception of what goes on out there. We need to take technical information and provide it in a trustworthy manner. We haven’t done it enough, but I think we can do it successfully. Our messages are not
presented as well as they should be.”

Store-level influence

The “point of purchase” is the most important moment for a product to be purchased or declined. Seltzer believes it’s important to make the store associate at that point of purchase as knowledgeable as they can reasonably be but agrees that  “it is incumbent upon the industry to work with retailers and their associations to help disseminate information in a form a retailer can share with their employees.”

Seltzer also believes a “local link” is needed for retailers in addition to in-store information. “A retailer in Iowa, Minnesota or California needs to have someone at a land-grant univer-sity, local department of agriculture, etc., whom they can refer to. I think the majority of the time the consumer reads something in a newspaper or on the Internet and has a question they would like to have one or two sentences of information about other than ‘gee, I don’t know.’”

“The livestock industry has to understand that we probably are not the ones who are personally going to deliver the message, so when putting information together, we really need to think about that and will probably need help with it,” notes Wustenberg.

Zegar suggests putting a group together similar to these panel members at the Nat

ional Grocers Association meeting. “I am rather amazed how simply the veterinarians on the panel put things, without getting into all this technical jargon. You put it in a way that just about every one of us can understand, and that’s pretty good.”

One group already exists. Apley is involved with the Animal Health Network (AHN), a committee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which includes veterinarians from different areas of academia and practice who meet several times a year. Subcommittees of the AHN include hormones, environmental issues, BSE, foot-and-mouth disease. “In those instances when you need someone to talk to on a national level, the NCBA will put you in contact with the group’s director,” says Apley. “We are on call. This is one group that is being very proactive about communicating messages.”

Where to go from here

 
Mark Wustenberg, DVM, believes we are good at communicating one step up from us in the food chain, but not necessarily good about delivering it throughout the chain.

How do the livestock and retail industries move forward to provide the product and information consumers seek? Zegar believes a good option would be some sort of consumer advocacy clearinghouse for independent grocers housed to field questions as they arise. “The advocate could tell the caller what we know and give the number of a person who can tell you everything you need to know. The clearinghouse would be an impartial advocate and information source.”

White also likes the idea of having a clearinghouse of information that is an unbiased source and anyone can access. “Then, people can take those pieces of information and make their decisions.”

Wustenberg says having an expert on staff can work. “I get a lot of the consumer questions from our marketing folks who can tell customers that ‘it’s a great question, and we have a veterinarian on staff who can answer that for you.’ I work with them to draft responses, and that is extremely effective.”

Wustenberg cautions, however, that we can’t just send consumers somewhere else or to an “800-number” to get the needed information. “I don’t want to replace good point of purchase information with sending people to find information on their own,” he says. “The more different ways we have to give good and consistent information to consumers, the more believable and trustworthy we will be. We really need to have that message come from as many different sources as we can.”

“Activists try to portray producers as antibiotic-toting thugs who don’t care about their product,” sums Olsen. “Our caretakers care more than anybody about food safety. It’s their livelihood. Retailers and producers both work on a tight margin. There must be a way we can work together with the monies we have available to correctly educate the consumer.”


THE ANTIBIOTIC STORY

Antibiotics are not used in animal agriculture to compensate for poor management, contribute to “Frankenfoods,” contribute to human resistance, taint meat and dairy products with residues or make animal-health companies rich — they are used to ensure a safe food supply. There is a lot of scientific data to back it up, but those messages get lost in the fear-mongering messages consumer media knows will get more attention.

“Tremendously complicated issues are distilled down to sound bites, and in that distillation process, a lot of compromises are made,” says Mike Apley, DVM, PhD. “Another problem is a competition of delivery of data from certain parties. For example, the ‘70 or 80% of antimicrobials used in food animals’ figure that is often cited comes from a very agenda-driven Union of Concerned Scientists’ report. An example of the fluff in their estimate is that it includes a lot of coccidiostats that are not even therapeutically a problem in humans and help prevent other diseases that would require antibiotics. The challenge is trying to fill those data gaps and communicate that in a slightly expanded sound bite, because the consumer doesn’t want a 30-minute review.”

All antibiotics that are used have a therapeutic purpose. Swine veterinarian Daryl Olsen, DVM, gives the example of antibiotic use in swine in Denmark. 

“Denmark halted the use of what they classified as subtherapeutic antibiotics in pork production several years ago, and the overall use of anti-biotics in pork production increased,” says Olsen. “As we remove it from one level of production, it increases in others. Some use of antibiotics is needed to efficiently produce a healthy pork product. Antibiotics that are used correctly will not leave any residues in meat products.”

Apley would prefer to erase the term subtherapeutic from the vocabulary. “It insinuates we either have a therapeutic use or they don’t have any therapeutic value, when in fact, some of the ones that result in a growth-promoting result may be doing this by achieving timely intervention for disease. So, we have a problem with the connotations of that term.”

Precautionary principles

Sometimes there is no scientific data to prove that a production method causes any harm, but likewise there is no data to prove that it doesn’t, so consumers are left to figure out what they are comfortable with. Apley refers to the precautionary principle as applied in Europe. “Take the banning of monensin as a feed additive in Europe,” he explains. “There is absolutely no relationship whatsoever to any antibiotic used in humans. It’s very effective in preventing coccidia, which can predispose to other diseases that require other antibiotics. But since there isn’t actual data to prove that there isn’t a possible harm to human health, the EU has pulled the drug from food animal feed use. In the U.S., we have moved toward risk assessment, which is something I’m not sure the public understands very well.”

Another example is the recent question of using streptogramins in food animals. Virginiamycin is approved for turkeys, chickens, cattle and swine in the United States. “How does the use of virginiamycin in food animals affect the use of that drug for resistant Gram-positive infections in humans?” asks Apley. “The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine found insufficient data to answer this in a recent risk assessment. We’re put in those situations so often that our challenge now is to decide what we do if we don’t have the data. If the consumer wants to be precautionary about it, I think that needs to be their pre-rogative, but we need to give them as much information as we can.”

Another issue is about labeling meat as residue-free after an appropriate withdrawal period to calm consumer fears. It sounds simple, but it can’t be done. “To say something is absolutely completely residue-free, unless the drug was never used in the animals, is very tough,” explains Apley. “The FDA has approved tolerance levels of drug residues in food, but that information is very difficult to communicate to the public.”



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