Antibiotics have been part of meat production for decades. Today, they have become a source of controversy and, for some consumers, fear. In 1999, Chipotle became one of the first restaurants to tout that it sold meat from animals never given antibiotics. By 2017, restaurant chains like Hardee’s and KFC had joined the bandwagon to label menu items as “antibiotic-free” and in some cases “Never Ever.” We have the responsibility of helping consumers understand antibiotics’ place in meat production and what exactly the related label claims mean.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on health. In particular, consumers have become more diligent about their food consumption – adding food with immune-boosting properties and eating less of foods they perceive to be unhealthy. In Midan Marketing’s January consumer research, 10% of meat consumers said their households were eating less meat/chicken than in the prior month. Of those eating less meat, 26% said it’s because they’re worried about additives, antibiotics, hormones and/or chemicals in their meat.1
Our industry has been dealing with antibiotic misunderstanding and misinformation for years, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. Last month’s Power of Meat 2021 presentation showed that 40% of consumers simply don’t know whether meat comes from humanely raised animals.2 That lack of knowledge leads them to make assumptions. Lack of understanding surrounding antibiotics leads to assumptions, too. The first step to re-educating consumers is for us to understand what they believe so we can effectively counter any misperceptions.
In December, we surveyed shoppers who regularly purchase natural and organic meat and found the top reason consumers choose these products is because they perceive them to be free of antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals or additives they believe are “harmful.”3
Here are two misperceptions we must overcome: “If animals grew up eating food mixed with chemicals, I think that when people ate them, they would naturally have the same results as taking them,” explained one person who responded to the survey. When asked about preference for natural and/or organic meat, another person added “I want to reduce the chance of spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”3 While we as agriculturalists know that no antibiotics are present in an animal’s system at the time of harvest, it’s clear consumers don’t understand this. As a marketer, I know there will always be demand for NAE meat. Right now the demand for the claim is increasing. So, on one hand we want to meet consumer demand. On the other, it is our job to find easy ways to convey important information in order to educate meat consumers in a way that allows them to give themselves permission to enjoy conventional meat guilt-free.