I’ve been waiting for the various industry initiatives related to phasing out routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics to filter into the mainstream media.

It hasn’t quite reached that point yet, but stories about how producers are developing alternatives are beginning to surface in business media.

For example: the Food Dive site, which tracks food-industry mergers, acquisitions and product developments, recently ran a story titled, “As livestock antibiotics use declines, how are producers keeping animals healthy?”

The story discussed efforts underway across the meat and poultry industries to find ways to maintain herd and flock health, while convincing consumers that the meat and poultry products they purchase are safe, wholesome and increasingly, which more and more means label claims of “antibiotic-free” or “no antibiotics ever.”

The industry hasn’t reached that point yet, but if it were possible to achieve the same production gains and the same levels of animal health, the use of veterinary antibiotics, save for cases of illness, would have be already eliminated. That’s how far consumer opinion has shifted in the last five years.

One thing is certain. however: There’s no walking away from the controversy over sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics and anti-microbial additives and the public’s increasing willingness to connect their use with the undeniable problem of bacterial resistance to the antibiotics used in human clinical medicine.

As a society, we’ve had roughly four generations that have grown up thinking of antibiotics as “wonder drugs” capable of defeating any and all infections or illnesses that might arises. Thus, it causes an extreme case of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” the inability to reconcile two opposing pieces of information, when consumers are confronted with family, loved ones or even media reports of cases where physicians cannot control a person’s infectious condition with even the strongest of antibiotics.

Rather than accept that medical science isn’t all-powerful, that every disease and every infection cannot be quickly cured, people look for something — or someone — to blame.

Activists have provided plausible targets in both cases: veterinary antibiotics, and the producers who overuse them.

A choice of tactics

There is no doubt that medicine faces serious challenges dealing with drug-resistant pathogens. It’s always been an arms race to stay ahead of bacterial colonies’ remarkable ability to adapt and to develop resistance to antibiotics. It has been well-known in scientific circles that from the earliest years of using penicillin that newer and more powerful drugs would always needed, lest the targeted pathogens eventually become immune to routine drug therapy.

Interestingly, while most marketers are working to find ways to claim they’ve “cleaned up” their operations and no longer need to rely on routine use of antibiotics, other companies are attempting to communicate that reality to their customers — namely, that the judicious use of antibiotics must continue if the larger goal of animal and human health is to be maintained.

For example, Sanderson Farms recently launched a new marketing campaign “educate the public on common misconceptions surrounding the use of antibiotics in poultry production, while exposing marketing gimmicks designed to mislead consumers and sell products at a higher price,” to quote a company news release from a couple months ago.

And what might those “common misconceptions” be? Simply that their competitors have “misled consumers” that their chicken is raised cage-free and free of antibiotics and added hormones, whereas FDA regulations since the 1950s “require that all chicken be free of antibiotic residues,” and that using added hormones [in chicken] is illegal.

That’s a bold approach, but one that raises questions about consumers’ willingness to sit still while somebody tries to explain the rather complex issue of veterinary antibiotics usage, not to mention whether even the most well-informed shopper wouldn’t simply grab the package of chicken that says “antibiotic-free” anyway.

We have been so conditioned to consider antibiotics as medicine’s most important weapon in the war against disease that a message suggesting that “irresponsible producers” have compromised the drugs’ ability to cure infections resonates a lot more powerfully than one that suggests nuance and balance and judgment calls regarding their use.

Advertising doesn’t work well as an educational medium. "No Antibiotics Ever" sells a lot better than "We’re Judicious About Using Them."

But the bottom line to all the media coverage, all the activist campaigning and all the marketing messages related to antibiotic use in animal agriculture is that there’s no going back in time. Consumers are far too conditioned to believe that anything compromising a doctor’s ability to write a prescription that instantly cures what illness they’ve developed is evil and must be stopped to think otherwise.

Industry either finds ways to maintain the production efficiencies and the reductions in morbidity and mortality achieved through “judicious” use of antibiotics with some other system, or prepare to face a long and ultimately losing battle to convince people that their genuine fears about antibiotic resistance have nothing to do with the millions of pounds of antibiotics fed to livestock and poultry every year.

Good luck with the latter approach. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.