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A food systems approach to antibiotics

Mike Opperman for Progressive Dairyman Published on 10 June 2016

For food companies, managing food system issues requires strategic thinking while navigating a complex communications and regulatory landscape. As we spend our days researching food system issues and building strategic recommendations for our clients, one point has become crystal clear:

No issue raises the public’s concern higher than the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. And the level of public concern is directly correlated to the level of focus placed on an issue by food companies.

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Any food company selling dairy products, beef, pork, poultry or fish knows the time to act is now. Most are defining the best path forward. The solution differs from company to company, but there are some absolutes. As a producer supplying product to these companies, it is important to see the issue from their viewpoint.

Antibiotics is largest of many issues

Food companies are beset by many food system issues beyond antibiotics. Effectively managing animal welfare, genetically modified organisms, environmental, labeling and other issues requires understanding many public communications and regulatory implications.

However, when many public health experts, such as Dr. Steven Solomon of Global Public Health Consultants, refer to the antibiotics issue as a global health “crisis,” those throughout the food system take notice. None of these other issues resonate as deeply as the antibiotics issue.

Other issues certainly deserve the attention of organizations throughout the food system and figure prominently in strategic planning. However, due to the human health implications and constant media churn, the antibiotics issue is a top priority.

Companies with indecisive policies that result in negative media attention have a direct, negative impact on the company’s brand.

Consumers are paying attention

The antibiotics issue connects in a very real and direct manner to the consumer. Attention from the media and advocacy groups has translated into public concern regarding antibiotics. Consumers are concerned about how antibiotics are used in animal agriculture because they want to know how that impacts the food they feed their families.

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Given the transparent communications terrain of the 21st century, organizations are becoming adept at delivering messages to agriculture and consumer audiences alike. Groups like Farm Foundation, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Pork Board are providing valuable insight on antibiotics and other issues that were once limited to an agriculture audience.

Another impact of transparent communications is that organizations with opposing views, such as the Humane Society of the United States, are offsetting messages coming from pro-animal agriculture advocates. Unfortunately, consumers don’t know who to trust. But what consumers learn and believe is affecting buying decisions and perception of food companies.

Building antibiotics policies

Companies develop a clearly articulated and transparent antibiotics policy as a first step toward managing the antibiotics issue. This lets consumers know the correct use of antibiotics is as important to the company as it is to them.

Many companies, such as Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and McDonald’s have well-established antibiotics policies that play an important role in their overall business strategy.

These companies did their due diligence, created consensus within their organization and anticipated the public’s upcoming desire for information regarding antibiotics and how they are used when caring for livestock in the supply chain. These efforts not only help build and protect the company’s brand, but help it build reputational capital with key audiences.

From policy to action

With a policy in place, stakeholders are looking for action, some level of commitment to responsible use of antibiotics in the supply chain. Many companies with well-established antibiotics policies already have taken those steps and are in a “maintenance” phase – managing the policy throughout their supply chain, making certain the policy is being executed by their suppliers and answering questions from consumers or activists.

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Notable examples include Perdue Chicken and Smithfield, which make full use of social media and other digital communications channels to respond to inquiries in real time.

Companies with newly adopted antibiotic policies face the challenge of communicating the policy to internal and external stakeholders and turning the policy into a commitment that will satisfy all. While it can be a rather daunting task initially, these actions establish the foundation of a responsibility platform that will build reputational capital for years to come.

Virtually every company in the meat business has faced and will face challenges regarding the antibiotics issue. Some are maintaining and executing existing policies, others are introducing a policy, and still others are contemplating how and whether to articulate a policy.

The antibiotics issue and the food system are inexorably linked. Companies with established policies will still be challenged by various audiences to confirm their activities are still in place and working.

Those creating a new antibiotics policy face the challenge of quickly and efficiently getting internal and external audiences “on board” with the new policy. Regardless, food companies, regardless of category, are getting prepared to answer the antibiotics question.

Producers will be looked to for answers

When companies are tasked with validating antibiotics policies, dairy and livestock producers and the veterinarians that serve them will be at the forefront of antibiotic compliance. New government regulations are soon to be enforced as well.

The new and well-publicized Veterinary Feed Directive, along with FDA Guidance for Industry #209 and #213, is set to be in effect in December 2016. These regulations represent some significant changes for beef, pork and poultry producers. Antibiotics classified as medically important for human medicine will be further restricted for use in animals.

While regulations and stricter compliance guidelines from food companies present short-term implementation challenges to producers, they also present an enormous opportunity for producers to demonstrate antibiotic compliance, judicious use and stewardship to the larger food industry.

It’s a tenuous position for producers, having on one hand the power that comes with the significance of being on the front lines of greater antibiotic-use enforcement while at the same time toting greater responsibility and culpability should something go wrong.  PD

Mike Opperman is director of account planning at Charleston|Orwig, a company focusing on food industry communications. Email Mike Opperman.

 

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