Canada’s livestock & poultry industries are facing scrutiny over antibiotic use. Attention is coming from within the agriculture sector itself, our regulatory agencies, international trading partners and increasingly from retailers, consumers and media. Today’s post will focus on consumer concerns about antibiotic use in animal agriculture. The next edition will flip the coin and look at the issue from the medical community’s perspective.

For consumers, antimicrobial use largely fits under the umbrella of “safe & wholesome” food. Consumers are concerned about many technologies in agriculture. Antibiotics fall under the same spotlight as steroids in beef cattle, GMO crops, and pesticide use in fruits and vegetables. My opinion is that concern over antibiotic use reflects this general unease about technology in agriculture.

This is not meant to demean the real threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria to human and animal health. But, it does mean that we need to use different language and focus on different issues when communicating with consumers compared to the medical and scientific communities.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood” Steven Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

So what messages resonate with consumers who are worried about antibiotics or are wondering if they need to buy meat labeled as Raised Without Antibiotics? The following points address common concerns, questions, and misconceptions that I hear about antibiotics from consumers.

  1. There are no antibiotics in Canadian meat, milk or eggs. Many consumers are unaware that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) strictly enforces withdrawal times after treatment to ensure that meat, milk and eggs do not contain antibiotics above the regulatory limits. Consumers may not understand that meat labeled as antibiotic free production reflects a rearing or management approach but that all meat sold in Canada is free of antibiotics.
  2. Resistant bacteria have a long journey from farm to fork. While it is true that animals and humans share a global microbial ecology the most direct link between farm animals and people is food. Canadian regulations at slaughter facilities minimize bacterial hazards. Proper handling and cooking of meat eliminates food borne bacteria including resistant bacteria.
  3. Sick animals need medicine. A common misconception is that antibiotics are administered indiscriminately. Others believe if an antimicrobial is given to a group through feed or water that it MUST be for growth promotion. Share your values. Mine are that failing to treat sick animals is ethically wrong and that early treatment or prevention is often the most humane and judicious approach.
  4. Farmers operate within rules. Canadian veterinary pharmaceuticals are regulated by Health Canada. Their use is governed within provincial veterinary medical acts. Informing consumers about the role of the Veterinary Drugs Directorate, the strength of the veterinary-client –patient relationship and of the high participation rates in Quality Assurance Programs can be re-assuring.

Finally, consider sharing an experience from your herd or flock. Your personal story of a disease outbreak that would have been life-threatening if left untreated is a powerful testimonial to why we need to retain access to antibiotics. You care for your stock. In fact, research on consumer trust by the Center for Food Integrity shows that sharing values is three-to-five times more important to building trust than simply demonstrating technical expertise or sharing information.

Listening to the concerns of friends, family, and even strangers can enlighten us to their fears about modern farming. If we are to maintain the social licence to use these medicines, it is as important for us to understand their perspective as it is to share ours. Hopefully this has prepared and inspired you to open a conversation with a consumer concerned about how we use antimicrobials on our farms.

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