I recently heard Brandi Buzzard Frobose give a fantastic presentation on agriculture advocacy, including tips for writing letters to the editor. She, like many other experts in that realm, described how farmers need to listen to consumers’ concerns and acknowledge them before responding.
As I thought about her advice, I realized that I have not been doing a very good job of this when it comes to antibiotics discussions. My response has not been aligned with the consumers’ actual concerns. Because in the antibiotics debate, consumers are focusing on human health, and I’ve been focusing on animal welfare.
Let’s break this down a little bit. When consumers worry about antibiotic use, what are they really afraid will happen? They’re afraid that antibiotic use on farms will make the medicines useless when they, or someone they love, need them. They’re scared of “superbugs” that can make them sick or even kill them. They are not, at any point in their thought process, thinking about the animals.
As farmers, the health and welfare of our livestock is a top priority. And often, that’s where we focus our response. “Antibiotics are vital for animal welfare,” and, “Animals would suffer and die without antibiotics,” are the go-to messages we use. I have no doubt that those messages are accurate. But my gut tells me that they don’t resonate well with consumers.
They’re talking about human health, we’re talking about animal welfare. They’re worried about how antibiotic use will affect them and we’re focusing on how it affects animals. When we respond that way, the message gets jumbled. If we’re lucky, the message is loosely translated to mean, “Farmers care about ‘animal welfare’ more than human health.” But honestly, I think the consumers’ reaction is probably closer to, “Farmers don’t care about human health.”
That translation has deep implications beyond the antibiotics debate. If consumers believe that we don’t care about human health related to antibiotic use, how can they believe that we care about food safety, employee working conditions, or the communities where we live?
Problems always seem simple from the outside looking in, but they are often much more complicated than they seem. The antibiotics debate is definitely one of those situations with many nuanced factors at play, and I know that farmers take many things into consideration when deciding whether or not to use antibiotics. But to consumers, the issue is simple and one-dimensional. It’s not about animal welfare. It’s not about economics. It’s not about efficient food production.
For consumers, the antibiotics issue is about human health, plain and simple.
Instead of focusing our response on animal welfare, let’s show consumers that we care deeply about human health and we’re taking action to prove that. The Veterinary Feed Directive, new advances in disease prevention, and voluntary reductions in antimicrobial use are all examples of agriculture’s response to the growing antimicrobial resistance problem, and consumers need to hear about these things.
So let’s stop talking about animal welfare and go back to the basics. Listen to consumers, really think about their concerns, and show them that we care. It’s time to change our tune and sing a new antibiotics song.