By: Eric Mittenthal
Between recent actions by the CDC and FDA on antibiotic use in humans and animals as well as reports from others, antibiotics have been a topic of seemingly never ending media attention over the past couple of years. Recent research from Midan Marketing presented at the International Production and Processing Expo in Atlanta suggests that the constant drum beat is being heard: 88 percent of consumers are aware of antibiotic use in animals, and 55 percent are concerned about it.
But despite their awareness of antibiotic use in animals, consumer understanding of the issue is lacking. When presented the statement, “By the time fresh meat is sold at the grocery store, there are no longer any antibiotics in it,” only 14 percent of consumers knew this was a true statement. Those of us in the industry know that FDA mandates strict withdrawal times for antibiotics before an animal is harvested and that microbiological sampling is done to check for signs of antibiotic residues. Even those who argue against the use of antibiotics in animals haven’t been concerned about the presence of antibiotics in the meat itself. So why is it that so many people believe antibiotics are in their meat? The short answer is that words matter. Consider these headlines:
- “Antibiotics in Your Meat: Are There Dangers”-MSNBC
- “FDA targets antibiotics in meat” –USA Today
- “FDA to crack down on antibiotics in meat” -Politico
Just reading the headlines alone sends the message that there are antibiotics in your meat. The Midan data and headlines speak to the importance of using the right terms when discussing the antibiotics issue and should be a wake up call for all of us who are communicating on the issue, industry and media included. Antibiotic use in animals or livestock or even meat production are accurate descriptions. Antibiotic use in meat is not only inaccurate, it is misleading.
Impacting consumer perception on the antibiotics issue will not be easy. Midan’s data shows that 50 percent of consumers find the statement, “The U.S. government monitors antibiotic resistance and mandates that meat entering the food supply can have no signs of antibiotic use (residues) exceeding scientifically-developed FDA standards,” not believable.
As the CDC reminded us last year, antibiotic use and resistance in both humans and animals is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted solution. While it is difficult to boil down to sound bites or headlines, it is important to recognize that judicious antibiotic use in animals overseen by a veterinarian has important animal welfare benefits. It is the industry’s and the media’s challenge to communicate that to consumers, but it has to start with simply using the right terminology.