Executives from Tyson Foods, Yum Brands and Costco Wholesale discussed the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry products and consumer trust during a panel session at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) Antibiotics Symposium.
The most diverse group of power players in the debate over the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture in the symposium’s five-year history gathered as federal and state regulators, livestock and poultry producers, veterinarians, medical professionals, academia and consumer group activists traded views and staked out positions of the issue of antibiotic usage in food production and the potential development of antimicrobial resistance.
Meat and poultry supply chain panelists
The highlight of the symposium was the panel session, which featured Mike Morris, Yum Brands Global Quality Assurance; Donnie Smith, president and CEO, Tyson Foods; and Christine Summers, director of global food safety and quality for Costco Wholesale.
The meat and poultry supply chain panelists made presentations then submitted to questioning from the crowd of around 200 symposium participants.
Yum Brands to take holistic approach to antibiotics
Yum Brands’ Morris told listeners that the issue of antibiotic usage in food production animals is high on the fast-food chain’s list of priorities but so are animal welfare concerns and other issues.
“Every issue or policy around animal wellbeing [including the usage of antibiotics] impacts sustainable practices, food safety and food security, and these issues are interrelated. If you impinge on any one of these factors without consideration you are making a mistake in our view.”
Yum Brands takes a holistic approach to antibiotic usage in food animal production.
Yum’s approach to antibiotic usage in livestock and poultry production, Morris said, will be a holistic one, weighing animal wellbeing, sustainable practice, food security and food safety.
“From Yum’s perspective, we will not discuss these issues in a vacuum. We will discuss them in a holistic approach,” he said.
Tyson Foods balances core values
Tyson Foods has been reducing antibiotic use in its livestock and poultry for several years. It has reduced human-used antibiotics in its poultry production by about 80 percent in the last four years. By September of 2017, Smith anticipates removing all human-used antibiotics from Tyson’s poultry production, except in cases of sick poultry where no other treatment would be efficacious.
“Antibiotics are expensive,” Smith explained, “and if we can find ways not to have to use them [in Tyson’s herds and flocks] that is good for everybody."
“Tyson’s approach, however, is a balanced one,” he continued. “We recognize the global health concern over antibiotic resistance, and it is very important for us to play our part in addressing that issue. But it is also part of Tyson’s core values that we serve as stewards of the animals that are entrusted to us. The wellbeing of those animals is very important to us.”
Smith said necessary antibiotics would not be withheld from animals needing therapeutic treatment – including human-used antibiotics if those were the efficacious ones. In such cases, usage of human-used antibiotics would be reported by the company.
Costco’s Summers stated the same values for the wholesale grocer. “Costco is committed to the welfare of the animals used in the production of food. It is not only a responsibility; it is an ethical priority that animals be treated in a humane way. If they get sick, they must get the drugs or treatment that they need to get better.”
Food affordability is an additional concern to be weighed, according to Smith.
“The other thing that we must balance is food affordability. There is chicken, beef and pork available today that is organic and antibiotic free, but it is not cheap. So we are trying to find the balance between the concern about antibiotic resistance, the welfare of the animals and food affordability,” he said.
Tyson Foods produces more than 41 million chickens per week following a balanced approach to animal wellbeing and antibiotic use.
Tyson currently offers "no antibiotics ever" product lines (Nature Raised Farms and Open Prairie Angus), but Smith said these market segments are small.
Food priorities differ around the world
The need for balancing the potentially competing values is especially important for Yum Brands which operates internationally. What is important in food differs around the world depending in part on a society’s affluence. Less affluent societies may place a higher priority on food affordability and security.
Purchasing more than 255 million chickens per year, Yum Brands is confident in its meat and poultry suppliers’ use of antibiotics in their animals.
“Yum Brands does business all around the world,” Morris noted, “and with people from India, Africa, China and Southeast Asia as part of the Yum management team, those managers have widely diverse perspectives about what is important in a food animal supply policy. People in the emerging markets, if they are not currently worried about food security or food safety, they have a recent memory of it.”
Who influences the animal antibiotics debate?
“Where antibiotics usage is concerned we have enormous confidence in our [meat and poultry] suppliers,” Morris said. “They are ethical people. They are experts in their field. And they do the right thing.”
And while many consumer groups are legitimately concerned about antibiotic resistance or animal welfare, he said, there are others who often drive the media coverage of the issues.
“There are numerous NGOs; some very sincere, some that are virulently anti-humanity. Sincere or not they tend to be very short-sighted when demanding agricultural reforms and can be passionately ignorant of what is required to feed people,” he indicated in his presentation.
Morris said Yum Brands has tremendous confidence in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the regulations promulgated by the agency. “At our company, we feel that we are on solid ground relying on the regulations that are there to protect consumers, and we are confident that they are efficacious.”
Transparency in antibiotics usage in poultry
The three panelists agreed that greater transparency is needed in the usage of antibiotics and will be demanded by society.
“Millennials are going to drive more transparency, and I am fine with that,” Smith said. “On this year’s sustainability report Tyson will report how much human-used antibiotics we used and put it in perspective. It will involve how many chickens we raised and how many were treated with human-used antibiotics and the number of days treated. I think that will help the consumer understand what judicious use really means. ... We are committed to be completely transparent [in our reporting of antibiotics usage].”
Morris agreed about the need for transparency, saying, “If we did not want transparency it would be irrelevant because this generation of consumers demands it; and it is a good thing.”
Summers echoed the idea that Millennials are changing the way food suppliers, wholesalers and retailers must interact with consumers in the marketplace. “Millennials are very tech savvy. They use social media and the Internet and blogs, which is their primary source of information and communication,” she observed.
Millennials are changing the way food suppliers, wholesalers and retailers must interact with consumers in the marketplace. | Bigstock
Social media key to poultry’s response
How must poultry suppliers and retailers respond to the rapidly changing marketplace? Morris talked about the shifting marketing and communication challenge.
“We consider our brand an extraordinarily valuable asset. So we continually try to advance in the public’s mind the quality and value of the brands and protect them where necessary,” he said.
The challenge is illustrated by a video screen in the Yum Brands offices that keeps real-time social media impressions from around the world for all the Yum brands.
Yum Brands monitors social media impressions for each of its brands around the world, including Taco Bell in Spain. | Bigstock
“At Yum Brands we are absolutely immersed in social media. We promote our brands from a positive perspective, but when social media breaks with a negative story the screen displays the impressions and rates them on a scale. We try and stay ahead of that narrative.
“For an old guy like me the landscape is rather frightening. Fortunately, we have people (many of whom are Millennials) who are comfortable operating in this environment. I think that a progressive company that wants to be successful going forward is going to have to take that approach,” he said.
Listening to consumers on the issues
Smith also spoke about the importance of staying in touch with consumers, whether it involves the usage of antibiotics in poultry production or other issues.
“It is really important to continue to listen to consumers because they will tell us in subtle ways where they are going and what the gaps are in your offerings to be able to fill those needs. And it changes very rapidly.
“We have to be responsible. We have to be trustworthy in everything we do. But, ultimately we are providing for consumer[s] the food they want to buy. We have to listen to them and provide the food they want to buy ... We have to be careful about who is ultimately paying the bill and making sure that without endangering animals, without endangering global health concerns, and trying our best to keep the product as affordable as we can, we keep meeting consumer needs,” he added.