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How to combat common myths about antibiotic use

Dale Bliss for Progressive Dairy Published on 21 September 2020

Farmers believe in the effectiveness, and rely on, antibiotics for the care of their animals. However, some consumers believe antibiotics have negative side effects on the meat they consume.

Andy King, assistant professor at Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication for Iowa State University, recently presented a webinar detailing how to improve communication about antibiotics with consumers.

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Sharing day-to-day events and true-life personal experiences is a simple yet very influential way of communicating, King said. Consumers seem to have a more trusting nature when the information about antibiotics used in animals comes from an actual farmer or rancher. They tend to be more trustful of the information.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are readily available tools for communication. They are faster and have become a more user-friendly way to “get the word out.” Giving an account of a personal event along with pictures makes the information more inviting and more memorable.

Andy Bishop of Fairfield Farms in Kentucky is a beef and poultry agriculturist. He was a featured presenter in the webinar. Producers like Bishop are often questioned about antibiotic stewardship. (See his farm’s Facebook page.) 

While Bishop does give his cattle minimal antibiotics – only as needed – the poultry side of Fairfield Farms is antibiotic-free.

Here were a few of the myths that Bishop discussed and provided a proposed response for:

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1. Myth: All animals are pumped full of antibiotics.

“Just like humans, animals are given antibiotics only when needed,” Bishop explained. “Most cattle are vaccinated to prevent illness, therefore eliminating the need for antibiotics on a regular basis.”

2. Myth: Beef sold contains antibiotics unless it is labeled antibiotic-free or organic.

Bishop explained, “Beef undergoes rigorous testing by USDA inspectors at all processing facilities to ensure that it is antibiotic-free.” He further explained, “If medications are needed on the farm, they have a withdrawal period that producers must follow to ensure no antibiotics enter the food chain. It is against the law to sell beef for slaughter that has not met the required withdrawal period. Most withdrawal periods are 60 days, but it does depend on the antibiotic.

“All beef is antibiotic-free. Labeling antibiotic-free is just a marketing strategy.”

3. Myth: Farmers use 70% of all antibiotics used.

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While this statement is technically true on a volume basis, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Bishop said, “There are many more pounds of livestock produced in the U.S. than humans pounds treated. If you calculate the amount of antibiotics on a pound-for-pound basis, as is normally administered, humans use the same amount of antibiotics per pound as animal agriculturists.” He continued, “Yes, agriculturists use a larger total amount because the food animal population is much larger. Most people do not distinguish using proportionate as the key term.”

When it comes to taking care of animals, Bishop’s motto has always been, “If the calf is sick, we treat; if it is not, we don’t.”

Since most people are four to five generations removed from farms and ranches, they do not have a true understanding, if any, as to what guidelines are set in place for ranches and farms. Bishop explained, “Even though most people believe that farmers and ranchers are good people, communicating what we do is a daunting task.”

“The lack of understanding has given in to anti-agriculturists groups, which include the medical profession. This in turn helps to influence consumers with information that is not always the right information,” he said.

One of the strategies Bishop uses to communicate and inform consumers is, “Make it simple; don’t insult their intelligence. Remember, sometimes less is more. People have short attention spans and are not going to read lengthy posts about the science behind what you are trying to do. Stay on point and keep it simple.”

“You need to stay calm and cool,” he said. “You will get head scratchers or offensive comments. Use these experiences as an opportunity to educate. Remember some people just want to fight.  You will not win with these people, so do not try.”

Most beef and dairy farmers participate in the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. This program teaches stewardship in animal husbandry. Instilling confidence in consumers about the beef industry is one aspect of BQA. With the rise in attention from the public regarding how animals are raised, keeping lines of communication open with consumers is more important than ever.  end mark

Dale Bliss is a freelance writer in Florida and still lives on the same farm where she was raised. Her father was a cattleman and also farmed. She enjoyed helping her dad with the cows and taking them to market.

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