Antibiotics in livestock farming — Telling the right story

By David White, executive director, Ohio Livestock Coalition

Trend watchers and agriculture experts alike agree on one thing: the use of antibiotics in livestock farming is likely the next big issue. What does “big” mean?  By some accounts, the antibiotics issue could be BIG — think lean finely textured beef (or “pink slime”) big  — or as big as the issue of housing pregnant sows.

It’s important to remember that we have a good story to tell on how antibiotics are used on farms. We are doing the right thing for our animals, for food safety and for our farms. Unfortunately, that’s a story we’ve not always told in the best manner.

The farm community is good at leading with science and data. When discussing antibiotics, we make this argument:  “Science tells us we can.”  “The animals are my livelihood.” “FDA/USDA says what we do on our farms with antibiotics is okay.” “Everyone uses antibiotics.”

While all of those statements may be true, they disregard one critical point. While consumers may trust farmers, they don’t trust today’s farming practices. Those statements, although accurate, do nothing to build trust, which is what farmers need to do when communicating to consumers on the important topic of antibiotic use on Ohio’s livestock farms.

Building trust with consumers starts with identifying and communicating through shared values. Values-based messages are three to five times more effective in communicating with consumers than science-based messages. And we need to share those messages through conversation — not just talking at consumers but listening as well and engaging in meaningful dialogue that addresses their legitimate concerns.

We don’t need to lead with the nitty, gritty details of antibiotic use on the farm. Start the conversation with the basics. “I understand that you’re concerned about the safety of your food — so am I.” “I know there is a lot of information out there about antibiotics. Some of it good, some of it not good. Can I answer your questions?”

Then, answer those questions openly, honestly and transparently. Supplement your answers with values-based points like these:

  • Preventing disease in my herd is very important to me. On occasion, I do use animal medicines such as antibiotics to keep my animals healthy.
  • I rely on the guidance of my veterinarian in making those decisions.
  • Like you, I want to be sure the food I produce is safe for my family and for yours.
  • If I use antibiotics for my animals, I follow strict guidelines that ensure the medicine is gone from the animal long before it goes to market.
  • During the time the animals are treated, they (and the milk/eggs/etc. they make) are separated from the rest of my farm’s operations. That is required by our regulators and it also is the right thing to do.
  • As an added measure of safety, our products also are tested at other points in the production process to ensure there are no residues from antibiotics remaining.

Don’t be afraid to recognize that the consumer has choices in the market when it comes to foods from animals raised with antibiotics. Consider using messages that include the following points:

  • There are lots of ways that farmers can raise animals that produce milk, meat, eggs and other foods.
  • Whether you buy food that comes from an animal never treated with antibiotics or not, you can be sure you’re getting safe, wholesome, high-quality food, because it comes from a farmer committed to food safety.


And, when the base of shared values has been established, take the time to supplement those messages with easy to understand data points about antibiotic use, such as these from Dr. Richard Raymond, a former Undersecretary for Food Safety for USDA:


  • FDA statistics show that 87% of antibiotics used in animals are either never, or very rarely, used in human medicine.
  • Two classes of antibiotics that are critical to human health and make up 24% of all human antibiotics sold (2009), combined make up just 0.3% of all antibiotics sold for animal health.
  • FDA in 2012 issued proposed guidelines for the use of antibiotics in animals that limits use of medically important antibiotics to prevention, control and treatment of disease only.


Where the farm community has fallen short in the past is in not acknowledging the consumer’s right to ask the tough questions and in not accepting our responsibility to answer those questions. It’s essential that going forward, we recognize the legitimacy of their concerns, and our role in educating them on the practices we use on our farms.  It’s not an antibiotics issue, it’s a trust issue. By communicating in a way that focuses on values and engages meaningful conversation, we can demonstrate that not only do we know a lot, we care a lot.


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