THE ANTIBIOTIC BATTLE
COMPANIES ENGAGE TO KEEP ANTIBIOTICS WORKING FOR THE LIVESTOCK INDUSTRY
, by Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
When an activist group called Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW) wanted to pressure poultry producers to stop using selected antibiotics, all they had to do was target a few corporations that sell directly to consumers. As the food industry consolidates, special interest groups are learning how to dictate their demands by focusing resources at the retail end of the food chain.
Making complex food science, technology and industrialization more palatable to non-farm consumers continues to be one of agriculture's biggest challenges in the post-Information Age.
A NEW CLIMATE
"If people have good factual information, they will make good informed decisions," he concludes. "That's a big challenge to us in agriculture, because we haven't always had to work with the general media in explaining technical and complicated issues. But it's a two-way street. We as companies need to be available to provide open and factual information."
Those factors have led to stiffer drug approval processes, closer monitoring and louder cries from consumer advocacy groups. A stringent and respected regulatory process is good for companies and for consumers because it builds long-term consumer confidence, Erpelding says. But while regulatory changes are a sign of responsiveness to technological advancement, nevertheless, additional costs and restrictions still take a toll on the food and agricultural industries.
Antibiotics are administered to livestock in three primary forms: via injection, orally through the water or through the feed. Their use purposes range from disease control, treatment and prevention to health maintenance as measured by enhanced growth promotion and feed efficiency.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sponsors of new animal drugs to conduct studies, prior to approval, evaluating the potential for the development of antimicrobial resistance. In addition, FDA retains the congressionally approved authority to remove any products from the market that present a risk to public health. The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), administered by FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of AgricultureÚ(USDA), currently demonstrates that levels of resistance for 17 antimicrobials used in agriculture have not changed significantly over time.
In Europe, where food safety fears have led to public policy changes, the results of limiting antibiotic use have been far from conclusive. Some European studies have shown that organically raised chickens are far more likely to carry disease-causing bacteria than those raised conventionally with antibiotics. Denmark, one of the earliest countries to phase out the low-level use of antibiotics as growth promotants, reduced overall antibiotic use levels but doubled treatments for animal diseases. In some ┤┤arts of Europe, resistance to human antibiotics has increased, rather than declined, in spite of use restrictions. Meanwhile, the CDC reports a 23 percent decrease in bacterial foodborne illnesses in the United States since 1996. But foodborne illnesses in Denmark are increasing and are five times what they are in the United States, according to Phillips.
As U.S. companies learn how stringent risk assessments will be integrated into the regulatory process and gather more data on resistance development, their investment in public affairs and education up and down the food chain remains critically important, Elanco's Erpelding says. "It requires a strong commitment of reaching out to key influencers and stakeholders, sharing our learning and the facts," he says.
TOUGH CHANGE FOR PRODUCERS
Consumer concerns do register at the farm level. Even in the beef industry, which is the least vertically integrated and the hardest to standardize, food safety issues are driving ongoing changes in production practices, observes Scott MacGregor, a nutritionist and partner in Livestock Consulting Services, in the September 2002 issue of Beef Today. "We are operating in a 'pull system' that is controlled by the McDonald's and Wal-Marts of the world," he says. "Everything from animal welfare to prudent drug usage will dictate from whom these companies buy their meat supplies."
According to the 1999 National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) feedlot survey, more than 83 percent of feedlots use an antimicrobial in the feed or water as a health or production management tool. But prudent use campaigns are having an impact. An article in the January 2003 issue of BEEF magazine encourages cattle feeders to use and document more precise applications of pharmaceuticals. According to the NAHMS feedlot survey, only about 25 percent of feedlots record the weights of cattle at the time of treatment, as opposed to 56.2 percent that don't.
Increased focus on biosecurity, health management, nutrition programs and proper antibiotic use has decreased the need for antibiotics, Erpelding says. In the past few years, total antibiotic use is on a downward trend, according to usage data collected by the Animal Health Institute. Total usage declined from 23.7 million pounds in 2000 to 21.9 million pounds, based on a member survey of sales. Better health management programs are decreasing the need for treatment, while prudent use programs are reducing overall use, Erpelding says.
New product development will make it possible for livestock producers to respond to a changing consumer climate as well. For example, the goal of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., St. Joseph, Mo., is to provide livestock producers with more management options to meet (future) consumer needs.
"As a company, we have reduced our stake in antibiotics for animals over the last five years," says Klaas Okkinga, marketing manager for Boehringer Ingelheim's swine enteric products. "Rather than treating disease, we'd like to prevent it. That is really'our company vision. We shifted from a treatment strategy to prevention strategy, and that tends to move you away from antibiotics to vaccines."
Still, it would be using too broad of a paintbrush to say that you can replace all antibiotic treatments with vaccines, he adds.
Though production agriculture is already shifting resources toward disease prevention strategies and considering ways to reduce the use of antibiotics, a depressed financial climate can make adapting to change even more difficult and slow. A sudden loss of treatment alternatives would have serious implications, Okkinga adds.
"A lot of producers are very open to change," he observes. "But the swine industry in particular has had a very difficult year, and they are still experiencing financial losses on every pig they produce. So that doesn't make things easier. Telling people that they will lose less money by making an additional investment is a difficult selling proposition. It's a tough time for placing new concepts in the market."
Richard Lobb, director of communications for the National Chicken Council, echoes those concerns.
"I think we're looking at more expense, more losses, a more difficult production environment as we go forward," he says. "To the extent that we can change that forecast, we will certainly try." AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance writer based in Enid, Okla.
When the poultry industry voluntarily dropped most uses of a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, approved fewer than 10 years ago to treat very specific respiratory outbreaks in confirmed flocks, it showed how much leverage consumer groups have in the public relations arena.
Fluoroquinolones, powerful drugs similar to the Cipro handed out during the anthrax scare in Washington, are far more stringently prescribed for animals than humans. "There are those in the human health community who were never in favor of veterinary use of this compound, who have been campaigning against it from the start," explains Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council. "The CDC and other folks have been campaigning to get it delisted."
The leading poultry producing companies eventually gave in to the pressure, voluntarily announcing that they would "eliminate or further restrict" use of the product. Keep Antibiotics Working posted those public announcements by Tyson Foods, Gold Kist Inc., ConAgra, Perdue and five other major poultry integrators on the KAW Web site and posted similar statements by large restaurant chains such as McDonald's, KFC and Subway.
The poultry companies are still trying to find a replacement treatment strategy. That's hard to do. "There are very few veterinary drugs being developed," Lobb says. "That's a real problem. The market is not that big for new drugs, and the barriers to developing them are substantial. Most of what we have are the veterinary equivalent of human drugs."
In fact, if unfavorable economics continue to reduce the development of new vet medicines by the pharmaceutical industry, growers will struggle with long-term management challenges and restrictions, he says.
Meanwhile, in the case of the fluoroquinolones, poultry industry concessions haven't done much to mollify groups intent on criticizing agricultural antibiotic use. As Lobb warns, "You can't satisfy people who don't want to be satisfied." AM
TRENDS AND TIPS FOR MARKETERS
Broaden your marketing strategies. "More and more companies are thinking through the consumer benefit of their product, and asking, 'How do I communicate that benefit?'" Erpelding points out. "More companies are also looking at public affairs plans, specifically the aspects of government relations, media communication and food chain outreach. We're at a point where we are not perfect, but making progress and refining as we move ahead."
Develop a public affairs plan along with the technology. "We've met with several retail and quick-service companies and the packer-processor sector, and if one is willing to sit down and share information, it's extremely helpful to them," Erpelding says. "We as companies need to do consumer research, talk candidly to consumers via focus groups, and ask them 'What would you like to know and how should it be communicated to you?' in order to improve the product launch process."
Arm yourself with information. "Having a solid information base is important," Phillips says. The Coalition for Animal Health advocates expanding the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), administered by the FDA, CDC and the USDA, to assist in the process of prudent and informed policy-making.
Take care in selecting your promotional messages. "I think what a lot of folks have learned here is that it's very difficult and maybe even dangerous to try to use food safety issues as a marketplace differentiator," Phillips says. Instead, it's better to keep consumer messages as simple and straightforward as possible and avoid creating confusion. "The fact of the matter is we have all spent a lot of years talking about what a safe and abundant and inexpensive food supply we have," he says. "People want to know one thing and one thing only: they want to know that their food is safe. The marvelous thing about it is that we have government data that shows our food is safe."
Be flexible. Erpelding, who has traveled extensively globally, knows how important it is to adapt to the local culture and the needs of local customers. "Managing public affairs is very much an evolving science, where those who can do it well will have the most successful product launches," he says. "Those who don't will risk not achieving the ultimate market objectives." AM