But when talking about organic issues and countering negative information, Sumpter would like to know what the positive information is.
Olsen agrees that’s a problem. “I think it’s a huge frustration and a huge disconnect with agriculture today. We watch every other business, every other segment and their technological improvements and how they embrace technology. With agriculture today, we want to keep telling the story that every farm is a little rock-walled family farm. We are not allowed to change or advance because that’s not what the public wants to perceive, so we’re supposed to tell a different story so in their minds they are still seeing their livestock com-
ing from this little family farm.”
And as we change, that’s going to be very difficult, Olsen states. “Are we going to deceive the public about where they are getting their product, or are we going to have to change the perception of what is acceptable in production agriculture today?”
Hand in hand with consumer perceptions are consumer fears, real or perceived. One of the popular examples the media likes to talk about is the perception of antibiotic residues in meat and milk, the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics and hormones.
“We use antibiotics in the production system because they are safe,” says Apley. “It’s not a residue issue. As for the hormone issue, all meat contains natural hormones. No meat is hormone-free.”
Jon Seltzer, vice president of Dakota Worldwide,
Zegar cites a 2004 Whole Foods survey that asked about antibiotics and meat. Regardless of age, education, income level or region, more than half, 52.3% of those surveyed, were concerned about the presence of antibiotics in meat production when shopping for fresh beef and poultry. When asked what were their top concerns, they said price, flavor, food safety and 74% expressed concern over antibiotics. “Consumers have this mental image of what they think is good for them and what is not good for them,” says Zegar. “We have to be able to confront the issues from various fronts. It all goes back to this perception and who is going to deliver the message.”
Unfortunately, the message that there is no scientific data to show that using subtherapeutic antibiotics has anything to do with resistance problems doesn’t get out to the general population. “Overuse of antibiotics in children is our greatest concern, but that’s an issue we have to get addressed,” says Olsen. “People want a story. And there’s a story that comes with certain organic or natural products. That’s their drive and why they are choosing the product.”
Judicious and correct use of antibiotics creates a healthier food, adds Olsen. “There is no question it does; the data is there. We just have to get that story to consumers so they understand why we use antibiotics.”
White understands how messages can cause consumer concern. “It can validate their concern when you hear that a company is removing something, such as subtherapeutic antibiotics, from a product. By default, you feel like there is something wrong with the product. We’re seeing the rise in demand for natural or organic products without antibiotics, and companies are responding to the consumer desire, more so than a scientific response. We need to get the positive information out about our food supply and that we use certain products because it produces a healthier, safer food.”
Seltzer brings up a good point about how the livestock and veterinary industries often phrases their scientific points about drug use. “When using the term ‘when used correctly’ in speaking about antibiotic use in animals, that raises doubt in my mind. It means antibiotics can be used incorrectly, and if they are, what happens then?”
It’s foolish to believe that these issues just reside with the grocery shopper when at the store. These issues are making it to the Hill as well, says N.G.A.’s Lieberman. “Critics of the use of antibiotics claim they are used to compensate for improper animal husbandry techniques such as confinement and bad living conditions and feeding of unnatural diets,” says Lieberman. “That type of thing resonates with members of Congress.”
Lieberman believes the food animal industry needs to do a better job from a public-relations standpoint to combat these emotional claims. “Consumers might look to associates in the stores for information, but if The New York Times runs a big article about sub- therapeutic antibiotics or 20/20 does a big story, they are probably going to listen to
When those situations occur, however, Seltzer says it’s incumbent on the retailer to let the frontline employees know when there is a major event or news story. “I think it’s an opportunity for the retailer. That’s the time people are interested in that information.”
Exogenous influences work to create fear in consumers, adds Zegar. “The consumer gets this fear abourt things such as BSE, and whether it’s right or wrong, it is there. It bodes well for us to play up the idea that ours is the safest food source in the world because of the things we do. We’re always going to have mad cow, bird flu, etc., in the world, and it creates fear. So we’re going to have to confront it, and there has to be a continuous, long-term message of the safety of our food supply.”
Next issue: How do we as an industry get our message across?
, DVM, MS Kansas State University
Mark Wustenberg, DVM, Tillamook Creamery Association
Mike Apley, DVM, PhD,
Kansas State University
Daryl Olsen, DVM, Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic
Denis Zegar, Food For All
Jon Seltzer, Dakota Worldwide
Erik Lieberman, government relations, National Grocers Association
Doug Sumpter, DPS, Inc.
Kevin Murphy, food360°
Moderator: Paul Adams, Adams & Associates
A 2004 survey revealed farm animal veterinarians to be very trustworthy to consumers.