By Rick Berman
Editor’s Note—Alan Newport, editor of BEEF’s sister publications Beef Producer and BEEF Vet, recently wrote an opinion piece titled Yes, Virginia. There could be antibiotics in your meat as an Editor’s blog for BEEF Daily. The piece drew a lot of attention and a number of responses, including the one below.
There’s an old adage in communications that “if you’re explaining you’re losing.” Alan Newport’s recent piece, calling for the industry to say there’s antibiotic residue in meat and then explain that it is inconsequential, is well intentioned. But it's an unwise communications strategy. This may be a winning scientific argument at an FDA meeting but it will lose the battle in the court of public opinion.
Imagine the various newspaper headlines, like “Meat Industry admits your burger contains small amounts of antibiotic drugs.” Is that helpful for consumers? Do we want to chase that message around the internet?
Imagine you are the head of a cracker company. The FDA allows for small amounts of naturally occurring “food defects.” These are technically detectable but present in such tiny quantities that they don’t have an effect on consumer health.
But in the interest of transparency what would happen if we labeled cracker boxes with, “May contain insect feces?” Is this good information? Do consumers have a right to know?
You could say yes to both. But it’s also a dumb idea. It doesn’t actually help consumers understand anything. It is just going to gross them out. It's why water companies don’t offer a “may contain trace amounts of arsenic” label. It's why vegetable farmers don't label "naturally occurring lead" in their products.
In a perfect world consumers would take time to learn how ranchers use antibiotics. Then they would learn that federal regulations require withdrawal times and that the National Residue Program exists to ensure that meat is essentially antibiotic-free—even if trace amounts of residue might be detectable by sophisticated laboratories. But we don't live in that perfect world of the well informed.
The public needs a simple message. In-depth information for those who want it should be available online. For a public face, however, the industry should not be bullied or made to feel guilty over an antibiotic-free message.
Transparency in education is important but six-syllable scientific jargon needs to be replaced with easily digestible facts.
The “take home” message must be simple, reassuring, and correct. Consider how many communications problems would have been addressed if “genetically modified organisms” or “high fructose corn syrup” were originally branded "genetically improved foods” or “corn sugar.”
A 2015 report from the International Food Information Council Foundation found that only 61% of respondents were “confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply,” down from 78% in 2012.
People are already apprehensive and that makes them susceptible to sensational stories like mad cow and pink slime. We don't have any need or obligation to make matters worse.