Speaker encourages understanding antibiotic use, being a positive voice
Buffalo – “How many of us have gone and told our local grocery story thank you for carrying commodity beef?” questioned Jennie Hodgen, a food safety and meat science specialist at Merck Animal Health during the Johnson County CattleWomen’s Annual Women’s Ag Summit in Buffalo on Jan. 23.
“All retailers have comment sections online. It’s very easy to look up Kroger, Walmart or whoever and thank them for supporting the beef industry,” she said.
Hodgen explained that a small percentage of consumers are demanding niche market products and that producers can have an equally strong voice in the marketplace. She also encouraged producers to create good relationships within their communities.
“I firmly believe that one of the best ways to correct some of the misinformation out there is to have those one-on-one conversations,” she stated.
Something as simple as a dinner party can be a good way to open the door for a conversation about food production and building the relationship encourages consumers to think about speaking to their “ag friends” when they encounter questions.
“We need for people to have these wonderful experiences and memories of eating meat so that when they get questions they pause, like they do with bacon,” she explained.
One of the issues producers can help address is consumer concerns about antibiotics by helping to explain why and how they are used.
“Find out what their concern actually is,” Hodgen suggested in regards to opening the conversation.
By listening to the questions consumers already have, producers can often provide answers without creating more questions and concerns than they already started with.
For example, consumers are largely concerned about the use of antibiotics used as growth promotants in livestock, but they know very little about antibiotic use for treatment of illnesses.
“Surprisingly, consumers don’t make the leap between antibiotics given to humans and antibiotics given to animals,” commented Hodgen.
She continues, “There are four things that antibiotics can get approved for in the United States – treatment, prevention, control and growth promotion.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will no longer be approving growth promotion uses for antibiotics, but it has been highly popular for drug companies in the past for breaking into the market.
“In the past, the easiest claim to get approved from the FDA was growth promotion. If a drug company could get that claim, they could get their drug out there and then go after claims that are harder to get, like prevention, control and treatment, where the companies have to prove their drugs are controlling or treating a disease,” she explained.
Large beef cattle are not the sole result of antibiotic use, though, Hodgen said. Producers are paid by weight, and much of the growth seen in the industry is due to genetics.
“What has shifted in the last 20 years in genetics? We get more meat, we are more efficient, and we have a higher class of marbling, overall,” noted Hodgen. “We are trying to be good environmentalists, and we are trying to get our animals to grow faster with less feed and less water.”
Unfortunately, she warns, consumers can be frightened by the word “genetics” because they have negative feelings about genetic modification.
“It’s one of those terms that we all understand but perhaps might not be the proper way to describe it. If we remember to say we use different breeds, it might be more effective,” she shared as an example.
Providing positive reasons for certain management decisions can also be helpful, such as explaining that animals in the feedlot are closely monitored and cared for.
“I’m from New Mexico, and there isn’t much water in New Mexico. If we did not have a place to feed our animals, my family would not still have cows,” she said, explaining that feedlots provide humane options for producers who may not have all of the same resources.
Images that consumers have of feedlots also contribute to their concerns about antibiotics in the environment, although Hodgen explains that sunlight, water and air degrade excreted antibiotics before they transfer into the environment.
“Problems with antibiotics in the environment are usually associated with people,” she noted.
Consumers are also concerned with resistance and the development of “super bugs” due to the overuse of antibiotics. Again, Hodgen pointed out that livestock management is not where problems develop.
“Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) is probably the most prevalent disease in the beef industry. One of the things that eases the consumer’s mind is talking about what kinds of bugs we are worried about,” Hodgen remarked.
The bacteria that cause BVD are not bacteria that cause illnesses in humans, and therefore, the drugs used to treat BVD do not affect how people are treated.
“An antibiotic is a product from a bacteria that kills another bacteria,” she described, adding that resistance occurs for specific relationships between one bacteria and another.
Although many consumer concerns are unfounded, Hodgen noted that one way to reduce antibiotic use is to properly vaccinate animals.
“In 1997, 69 percent of animals going into the feedyard did not receive proper vaccination,” she stated.
Hodgen encouraged producers to be good representatives of the industry, providing good examples for how food is produced.
“We need to remember, the misperceptions around antibiotics are not only an antibiotic conversation. We need to have conversations about everything we’re doing with our animals,” she said.
Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.