Managing microbial threats, antibiotic stewardship and consumer expectations in animal production are the U.S. poultry industry’s toughest challenges in decades, and it showed in the Midwest Poultry Federation’ preshow symposiums for 2017.

Public concern over antibiotic use in poultry and the disruptions in consumer behavior, and the corporate responses in the food supply chain figured prominently as topics in the meeting sessions in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

A former McDonald’s executive told poultry industry members at the North Central Avian Disease Conference, “The first word of caution that I have to offer you is don’t look for logic in the consumer space with respect to antimicrobial resistance.”

Jerome Lyman told listeners, “Consumers are not going to respond logically to some of the issues in science, medicine and agriculture and, quite frankly, they shouldn’t be expected to be logical about it.”

Speaking in his role as trustee of the Farm Foundation, Lyman made the case that agriculture, including the poultry industry, needs to understand and adjust to consumers who are informed largely by television and the internet, and expect food to be safe and affordable.

Fifty-four percent of the public in United States and Brazil say they would likely purchase beef produced without the use of antibiotics but only 31 percent said they would pay extra for it.

Lyman said producers need to move from viewing this as a problem and instead view it as an opportunity to do the right thing from a corporate social responsibility perspective and make money at it.

Disruptions ahead in the supply chain

Nonetheless, disruption is a business reality, since many consumers are convinced that everything being done up to this point is wrong and might make them sick. Sixty percent of consumers, for example, say that the use of antibiotics in livestock to produce the meat they eat can make them sick.

Pointing to the major food retailers’ adoption of dramatic new policies involving antibiotic usage and animal welfare, Lyman said, “You may wonder what makes them think an entire industry can turn on a dime and adopt different production practices and methods.” The answers, he said, vary by company and brand, but come down to three categories – corporate social responsibility, shareholder activism and use of the issues as a competitive edge.

“I know that these three sources can drive you crazy,” he said, “but they are part of a larger social context involving antimicrobial resistance and may be one of the tougher things we are going to have to deal with going forward.”

Lyman said using science to persuade consumers can be only part of the food industry’s response. Producers will need better responses, possibly including the use of big data to predict disease outbreaks and obviate the need for antibiotics.

“If we are willing to act only if there is a verifiable, scientific protocol to back what we do – and if it is the same protocol we have been using for 30 years – consumers are probably not going to understand it and producers may find themselves significantly out of touch with their customers.”

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