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Antibiotics provide opportunity for industry to re-educate consumers

Danette Amstein

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Antibiotics have been part of meat production for decades. Today, they have become a source of controversy and, for some consumers, fear. In 1999, Chipotle became one of the first restaurants to tout that it sold meat from animals never given antibiotics. By 2017, restaurant chains like Hardee’s and KFC had joined the bandwagon to label menu items as “antibiotic-free” and in some cases “Never Ever.” We have the responsibility of helping consumers understand antibiotics’ place in meat production and what exactly the related label claims mean.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on health. In particular, consumers have become more diligent about their food consumption – adding food with immune-boosting properties and eating less of foods they perceive to be unhealthy. In Midan Marketing’s January consumer research, 10% of meat consumers said their households were eating less meat/chicken than in the prior month. Of those eating less meat, 26% said it’s because they’re worried about additives, antibiotics, hormones and/or chemicals in their meat.1

Our industry has been dealing with antibiotic misunderstanding and misinformation for years, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. Last month’s Power of Meat 2021 presentation showed that 40% of consumers simply don’t know whether meat comes from humanely raised animals.2 That lack of knowledge leads them to make assumptions. Lack of understanding surrounding antibiotics leads to assumptions, too. The first step to re-educating consumers is for us to understand what they believe so we can effectively counter any misperceptions.

In December, we surveyed shoppers who regularly purchase natural and organic meat and found the top reason consumers choose these products is because they perceive them to be free of antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals or additives they believe are “harmful.”3

Here are two misperceptions we must overcome: “If animals grew up eating food mixed with chemicals, I think that when people ate them, they would naturally have the same results as taking them,” explained one person who responded to the survey. When asked about preference for natural and/or organic meat, another person added “I want to reduce the chance of spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”3 While we as agriculturalists know that no antibiotics are present in an animal’s system at the time of harvest, it’s clear consumers don’t understand this. As a marketer, I know there will always be demand for NAE meat. Right now the demand for the claim is increasing. So, on one hand we want to meet consumer demand. On the other, it is our job to find easy ways to convey important information in order to educate meat consumers in a way that allows them to give themselves permission to enjoy conventional meat guilt-free.

As part of this industry, you are a credible source to your friends, family and professional connections. The way you talk about antibiotics in blog posts and articles, on your social feeds and in conversation affects the way consumers at large view antibiotics. But many of us don’t talk about it. Have you considered the cost of being silent on this important topic? Social listening on the consumer perception of antibiotic use in food shows that the voices pushing the benefits of NAE meat far outweigh the judicious use of antibiotics crowd. (Sidenote: This is also a uniquely American issue with 22 times as many social conversations on this topic originating in the U.S. than in India – the country with the second most antibiotic conversations.4)

1 Midan Marketing, January COVID-19 Meat Consumer Tracking Survey. January 28-29, 2021.
2 Anne-Marie Roerink, Power of Meat 2021 AMC Presentation. March 23, 2021.
3 Midan Marketing, Natural and Organic Meat Purchaser Survey. December 8-9, 2020.
4 Midan Marketing, Consumer Perception of Antibiotic Use Social Listening/Meltwater Report. December 1, 2020-February 28, 2021.

This content originally appeared in the National Institute of Animal Agriculture’s member-only newsletter Paradigm.


About the Author

Danette is a Managing Principal based in our Mooresville office. Together with Michael Uetz, she develops and carries out the strategic direction and vision for Midan. In addition, she works closely with our meat industry clients to outline effective strategies based on their business goals, and then oversees the execution of tactics to ensure those goals are not just met, but surpassed. Danette’s lifelong love for the meat industry started on her family’s farm in Kansas, deepened during her involvement with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef organizations and continues today with her passionate work for our clients. A well-respected thought leader in the meat industry, she speaks at conferences, writes social content postings, and blogs for Meatingplace. Married to Todd, she is a proud parent of a son and daughter, is a diehard Kansas State Wildcats fan, loves chocolate and still drives a combine when she goes home to Kansas for the annual wheat harvest.
Danette Amstein