7 things to consider with animal agriculture and antibiotics

The issue of antibiotic use in animal agriculture raises more than a few big questions, both inside and outside the ag community.

How much-or how few—antibiotics should be given to food animals? Who should be making those decisions—farmers, veterinarians, policymakers, doctors, food and restaurant companies, or consumers? How will we know what are truly best practices for animal health and human health?

"In all this conversation about antimicrobial resistance, we tend to get a little insular in our thinking," said Jerome Lyman, speaking at Wednesday's

Farm Foundation Forum

on antibiotic use in animal agriculture. "Whether we come from the medical profession, the animal health profession (or) we are producers, we are regulators, we write public policy, I think it's helpful to think a little bit from the point of view of a consumer. What I can share with you is that the consumer is pretty confused about this whole issue and ‚... we are all at least partly to blame because we got stuck in our own circles and forgot to understand that what we are really dealing with here is the integrity and the perception of the food consumers eat, especially in the area of animal protein."

Lyman, a former vice president at McDonald's Corp., where he oversaw the fast-food giant's global quality systems, joined speakers from the agriculture, policy, and regulatory communities at the Washington, D.C., event.

How can ag and others move forward on the complicated issue of antibiotics in animal agriculture? Here are seven factors influencing the issue, based on Wednesday's discussion among the panelists and attendees.

1. Customers are increasingly asking for meat that is antibiotic-free and more.

"It's not an issue of no (antibiotic) residue," said M. Terry Coffey, Ph.D., chief science and technology officer at Smithfield's Hog Production Division. "It's an issue of being raised without antibiotics." Consumers also want antibiotic-free meat to be produced without growth promotants, without gestation crates, and with vegetarian feed, he said. 'You are seeing a bundling of how animals might be raised tagging along with the 'no antibiotics'" priority.

Is that economically viable? It all depends on how much consumers—and how many of those consumers—are willing to pay.

2.

Activist shareholders are influencing companies' food supply chain decisions.

From Panera moving to cage-free eggs to Perdue's announcement it would reduce its antibiotic use, such shifts are often influenced by public pressure.

"Boards of directors that ignore shareholder activism do so at their own peril," said Jerome Lyman, a former vice president at McDonald's, where he oversaw the fast-food giant's global quality systems.

What else is behind food and restaurant companies' choice to drop GMOs or move to organic ingredients? The need to make market-driven decisions ahead of everyone else in the industry.

"If you are behind the curve in a competitive environment, you have already lost," Lyman said.

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