Rick Berman
Rick Berman

Activist groups including PETA and HSUS never run out of issues. If you change one practice to appease these vegans, such as sow housing, they’ll come back next week with more demands. Groups in the “conflict industry” have nothing else to do.

Witness the new focus on antibiotics. It’s an issue that has been on the periphery for years among food-safety and animal-rights groups. Activists are now more seriously engaging on the issue, which no doubt is due to the failure of HSUS to pass any legislative bans on sow maternity pens over the past three years. And they’ve also focused on a new target: the chicken industry.

The issue is a bit of a mess. Sanderson Farms has come out publicly to say why they judiciously use antibiotics as a preventive measure. Perdue has been phasing out antibiotics over the past decade. McDonald’s has come out in favor of phasing out classes of antibiotics in production that are also used in human medicine. Chipotle flaunts its “no-antibiotics-ever” philosophy.

Meanwhile, polling shows the issue hasn’t—yet—gained the public’s concern. The majority of people believe that antibiotic resistance is not due to antibiotic use on farms, but due to doctor over-prescription of antibiotics in human medicine. However, the numbers are shifting and will continue to shift as activists beat the drum that farms are creating superbugs.

So how should we fight misinformation and companies that traffic off consumer confusion?

Part of the battle will be in getting the facts in front of people. Data from Denmark show that banning farm use of antibiotics had no effect on antimicrobial resistance in bacteria from humans. We have veterinarians who support the judicious preventive use of antibiotics in farm animals.

But playing defense with facts isn’t good enough when your opponents care little for the truth and are simply using this as another opportunity to attack “Big Ag.” To be effective, we’ll have to communicate the consequences of bad policy.

Banning the preventive use of antibiotics means the activists will cause more animals to get sick. If you reduce antibiotic use, you’ll simply increase therapeutic use, as Denmark has also shown.

In fact, since HSUS’s goal is (supposedly) animal welfare, the group’s involvement in the antibiotic issue is bizarre. How is it “humane” to cause animals to fall ill?

The no-antibiotics-ever crowd is worse. Those animals may not just get sick, they may die (or be quietly shuffled off into the conventional food system). Chipotle admits as much in a passage buried in its annual report, referring to the fact that “herd losses” may be greater in farms that follow Chipotle’s rules.

Why would we let the activists drive the debate on antibiotic use? Ask, why do they want to see more animals sick? Why don’t they trust veterinarians to make proper choices? Is it really “food with integrity” if more animals die?

Editor’s Note: Rick Berman is the Executive Director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition established to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices. Visit HumaneWatch.org to learn more. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of PORK Network.