Let’s see? What would make a good topic for a column aimed at generating controversy? Assuming, of course, that controversy “sells.”
Which it does, by the way.
I’d argue that few issues would fit that model better than antibiotics.
That’s because it’s emotional, it affects nearly everyone (at least indirectly) and there’s enough legitimate uncertainty about the nature and extent of the threat to generate concern among both ends of the public opinion spectrum: well-educated people who must be swayed with argumentation and low-information consumers who accept the activist message that antibiotics are being abused, that they’re unnecessary in animal agriculture and that society is in danger thanks to the impact of antibiotic resistance among human microbial pathogens.
You doubt that? Just ask the next five or 10 people you converse with the following question: “What do you think about using antibiotics in meat production?” You won’t find too many who have no opinion, and you’ll find even fewer who think adding low-level antibiotics to animal feed is a great idea that makes producers more efficient, thus lowering prices at the meat case for hard-working Americans.
Truth is, antibiotic use in agriculture is the one issue most likely to start an argument, no matter who you are or where you stand on the issue, and thus it’s one of the most challenging issues for industry to develop a response that resonates with consumers.
I don’t have that blueprint, but I do know that industry has gone down many false pathways in an attempt to develop such a response, including:
› USDA inspection. While plenty of anti-industry groups make a living attacking USDA for “being in the pocket of industry,” the reality is that most people don’t equate inspection intensity with the perceived problem of worrying that one day they or a loved one could be imperiled by contracting an infection doctors can’t sure because a bunch of producers are dumping antibiotics into farm animals’ feed rations. Talking about how rigorous inspector are about monitoring antibiotic use is truly a PR dead end.
Which brings us to non-issue No. 2.
› Antibiotic residues. Yes, a segment of the general population is aware of the (alleged) dangers of consuming food products that might contain traces of antibiotics – ironically, it’s the highly educated, well-read folks who have the problem, even though they of all people should know that antibiotic efficacy is completely dependent on dosage. To create the desired medical effect not only requires sufficient quantities but sufficient duration of application. That’s why every physician who’s ever prescribed an antibiotic instructs the patient, “Finish the entire prescription. Don’t stop once you feel better or the infection subsides.” Right?
So the people most concerned about the dangers of antibiotic residues are the very people who ought to know better. In any case, the issue of potential residues is not why consumers either oppose industry production practices or proactively choose antibiotic-free meat and poultry products as the meat of choice.
› Veterinary supervision. Again, a non-issue. Even if an actual DVM physically administered every antibiotic dosage, even if a licensed vet personally shoveled antibiotic-treated feed into each and every animal’s feeding trough, it wouldn’t change the opinions if people who believe that antibiotic usage in animal agriculture is wrong and inappropriate.
The opposition to antibiotic usage — and let’s be clear that we’re talking about sub-therapeutic dosages used for health maintenance and growth promotion, not therapeutic applications needed to treat infectious disease — isn’t based on animal health, it’s based on human health. Rightly or wrongly, people worrying about contracting a serious infections that doesn’t respond to conventional antibiotic therapy is the source of most opposition to the use of such drugs in production agriculture.
› Activist agitation. Yes, a coalition of activist group have found common cause in demonizing the use of antibiotics by producers, and yes, many of the most strident voices make no distinction between sub-therapeutic use and veterinary treatment.
But that distinction doesn’t impact the average shopper pushing his or her cart past the meat case. The source of the average person’s opposition is concerns about their own health and well-being, not whether chickens or pigs or cows are being properly medicated or not.
› Scientific credibility. Industry spends enormous amounts of time, efforts and resources trying to establish its spokespeople’s’ bona fides as scientifically serious authorities whose pronouncements should be accorded serious consideration. That’s’ a waste of time. The activists opposed to current production practices have plenty of scientific credibility on their side. It’s useless to try to “out-science” other scientists.
Moreover, people don’t care about anyone’s PhDs and DVMs. They’re not uneasy about the practice of adding antibiotics to animal feed because they don’t understand the biomechanics of bacterial resistance.
People choose antibiotic-free meat and poultry products, or privately decide that producers shouldn’t be “dumping antibiotics” into feed or “pumping animals full of drugs” because of the single most powerful human emotion: fear.
Opposition to antibiotics in agriculture is driven by the fear that they might find themselves fighting for their life one day while doctors struggle to control an infection with drugs that no longer work because producers overused them to fatten their animals and their bottom lines.
As Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” testifies, “We follow orders, or people die. It’s that simple.”
And the majority of Americans believe that producers need to stop using antibiotics, or people will die.
It’s that simple.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.