Antibiotics & Animals

Antibiotic use in poultry is in the news again.  Some of the information accurate, much of it less so.  Perdue got huge points with activists with their September 3rd announcement of use reduction and usage levels (Perdue Achieves Milestone) which resulted in more flurry asking others when/if they were going to follow suit.  I follow a group on twitter, @fosterharms, who took the opportunity to flood twitter with questions to all major retailers asking them to pressure Foster Farms.

I willingly admit I am very close to the industry.  My work paid for my first house and the education I received from that work continues to guide my activities to this day.  I’ve worked in organizations that used antibiotics and I’ve worked in organizations that didn’t.  I remember the pain of implementing a program where you couldn’t use antibiotics.  Chickens died.  The statement that ‘we will not compromise our animal welfare to avoid the use of antibiotics’ is a very important statement to me.  I also know that a lot of companies who say they don’t use antibiotics are playing a word game.  They don’t use antibiotics in certain phases and lie by omission.

My experience has always been that companies use antibiotics to mask poor grower management practices.  There was always a lot of noise about antibiotics as growth promotion.  I never really bought into that.  Healthy birds grow.  Good management keeps birds healthy.  You walk with them. You monitor their water and feed intake.  You cull the little ones who aren’t doing well.  You keep them active.  You listen to them.  They grow.  If you can’t or don’t do that, you give them antibiotics and the birds get by.  This article talks a bit about the treatment but also attributes the reason to ‘bulking up’.  (Low Dose Antibiotics)  It does go into great detail about the risks associated with low doses – similar to the risk of a person not taking their entire prescription.  The weak die and the strong evolve.

I’m not claiming that elimination of antibiotics in animals is necessary.  I’m not even certain it would be beneficial.  What I do know is that persons who understand what is being done need to become more involved in the discussion.  Right now the producers are saying they are 100% right and the activists are saying the producers are destroying the planet, endangering the populace etc etc etc.  The truth – as it so often does – lies in the middle.

The Plight of the Lazy Farmer

Pretty much anyone in the farming industry that follows social media has been at least moderately aware of the Panera story for the past few weeks. This ad campaign has gotten more than it’s (un)fair amount of press since its release a bit ago.

Panera Story

It all started with a blogger from Wisconsin who publicly asked a bunch of questions many of us should have been asking:

Open Letter to Panera

I’ve thought about this post quite a bit since the news broke. One needs only to search #pluckezchicken to get an idea of the far reaching offense this ad campaign caused. Farmers and farm supporters across the nation began publicly announcing their boycott of Panera and calling on others to do the same. Panera launched a post by post apology campaign stating they did not intend to offend farmers, they love farmers etc etc etc until the swell of the tide was simply too much and they disappeared. Digging further onto DairyCarrie’s website shows Panera also contacted her directly in an attempt to explain their side of things. Unfortunately they didn’t do a particularly good job of it and the swell continued.  Note to all – never claim something is superior simply because it costs more……

Panera has stuck to their guns, while the pill shaped chicken seems to have diminished a bit. One has to assume they did zero cross functional marketing research before launching this campaign. I find this a bit surprising as my work with Panera always yielded a good back and forth dialogue. I am equally surprised that no one has put effort into finding out exactly who supplies the chicken to Panera and if, indeed, they are doing things differently.

I had the pleasure of working with Panera Bread when they originally developed this program, 8 or so years ago. The company I was working with at the time was one of the largest producers of Raised without Antibiotics chicken and we were approached as a potential supplier for the rollout. At that time, Panera was proceeding slowly, as were a few other chains, and wanted to understand the difference between the raising practices. They had nothing against conventional agriculture (and shouldn’t) and were simply looking for something to differentiate themselves from others in the market.

I have lived my career trying to explain the difference between birds raised without antibiotics and “antibiotic free” chicken. As has been stated many times in the past few weeks, all birds at slaughter are antibiotic free. While some have made statements that USDA makes sure they are (totally not true – USDA does essentially no drug residue testing in poultry) a reputable company – of which 99.99999997% are, follows proper treatment and withdrawal guidelines. Additionally, most companies at this point are using drugs for treatment of illness only. This was not the case 10 years ago – most of the industry used low-dose antibiotics as a means to help the growers ensure a strong flock of birds even if flock management wasn’t ideal.

I have no issue with Panera choosing to buy Raised without Antibiotic chicken, although at this point I’m uncertain if they are or simply mis-advertising the Antibiotic Free term. I think variety is the spice of life and consumers deserve to make an informed choice. What I do take issue with is Panera’s choice to degrade the methods of others – instead of highlighting what they (may?) do differently.

There is room enough in this world for all kinds and positively differentiating yourself from others is what marketing is for. But one should never denigrate the backbone of this country in an attempt to prove you’re better.  For that I am very disappointed that a company I have thought highly of for quite a while has proven themselves undeserving of that priviledge.