Likewise, arguments that the industry’s well-intentioned spokespeople make about sub-therapeutic usage keeping animal healthier, and thus limiting the need for more powerful antibiotics (the kinds that cause resistance problems), simply don’t resonate with shoppers pushing their carts through the local supermarket.
There was a great example of that in the newspaper article. Ranck described how he and his dad (who also raises pigs) removed an old barn two years ago and replaced it with a new $500,000 steel-framed facility. The investment resulted in more uniform growth rates, fewer bouts of illness and death among the animals, and thus a sharp drop in overall antibiotic use.
If you’re a producer, your head’s nodding. Of course—that’s why the industry’s gone to controlled housing and more sophisticated management, you’re saying to yourself—as if that settles any arguments.
But what do consumers think when they read about that anecdote? That a scenic old barn—the kind we love to spot on our infrequent drives through “the countryside”—was torn down, and now the poor pigs are trapped in a steel-and-concrete prison, never seeing the light of day and spending their waking hours crammed into tiny, sterile pens.
The notion that producers are “pumping pigs full of antibiotics” because they’re crammed into crowded, unhealthy housing actually makes a lot of sense—if you’ve never been on a farm, never seen the inside of a modern hog barn and don’t have a clue what animal husbandry’s all about.
Which describes pretty much 9 out of every 10 Americans.
The solution is twofold: One, open up those barns. Show people what goes on inside and the clean, sanitary environment in which pigs are raised. Yes, that involves issues of biosecurity, but under controlled conditions, the precautions that have to be taken before people enter a barn help underscore, not undermine, the message that modern housing isn’t dark and dirty at all.
And two, more farmers and producers need to speak up, along with fewer scientist and spokespeople. Industry experts are important voices in policymaking debates, but rarely can such folks communicate effectively with people who have basically zero technical or scientific education.
What the industry needs is more messaging that reflects how ad agencies handle copy: Aim it at seven-year olds, and you’ll be right on target.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.