Semantics and scare tactics (commentary)

Semantics and scare tactics (commentary)

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.

THE very large headline of a full-page ad in the Feb. 10 Denver Post read: "Drug Abuse Is Everywhere." It was paid for by the Consumers Union (CU), as in Consumer Reports.

For even more readership, it is on the back page of the first section, which I assume costs a whole lot more than being buried somewhere in the middle. But if you are at war, then price is probably no object. That is how CU sees it. The ad says we are "in the latest war on drugs."

In large, red letters, CU urges: "Trader Joe's, be an industry leader: Get your meat off antibiotics."

So, this is not really about "drugs" in general but the use of antibiotics in farm animals that CU says are raised in "crowded and unsanitary industrial farms."

Further, they decry that by weight of antibiotics sold, 80% are used in farm animals.

The ad also claims: "The overuse of antibiotics is causing these precious medications to lose their ability to treat lethal infections ... and contributing to this public health crisis."

Regarding that so-often-cited 80% figure, I could easily point out that more than 40% of the antibiotics used in animal husbandry are not even in classes approved for use in human medicine.

I could also just as easily point out that another 42%, by weight, of all antibiotics sold for use in animals are oxytetracylines and chlortetracylines. Although tetracylines were among the very first approved for use in human medicine, they have been largely replaced by more effective antibiotics in the macrolide class.

So, there is about an 18% overlap for antibiotics used in both human and animal medicine. That doesn't exactly shout at you in huge letters, does it?

I don't think CU really wants to debate the numbers or even the threat level, though. They want to shock, alarm, misinform and mislead with the big headline.

If they were even a little bit interested in spreading the truth, the headline could have been: "Antibiotic Use Is Everywhere."

The word "drug" has bad connotations for parents, for shoppers, for athletes — for nearly everyone. Drugs are what you do to rebel, to ease pain, to experiment, to cheat. The ad implies that America's farmers and ranchers are cheating.

Antibiotics are what you use to treat, prevent and control infections and, yes, to promote growth.

"Abuse" conjures up visions of shaken babies, date rape or substance abuse — all things illegal. The ad implies that farmers and ranchers are doing something illegal.

Antibiotics, when dosed according to Food & Drug Administration regulations and approved uses, are not being "abused." Prescribing an antibiotic in human medicine for a head cold or viral bronchitis, though? That might be abuse.

I have been traveling the country to speak to organizations and their members on the issue of antibiotic use in animals raised for food and what FDA has done to stem antibiotic resistance from this practice. In my opinion, anything more that needs to be done should be in the 18% overlap area I mentioned.

But that message does not reach the average consumer. I suspect that a lot of people will read the CU ad and have questions that need answers.

I do not have a background in law, communications or public relations, but many associations and organizations do have employees with those backgrounds, and I suggest that they utilize them — now.

The animal agriculture industry just got slandered with a headline implying that it is abusing drugs everywhere.

How about it, National Institute for Animal Agriculture, Animal Agriculture Alliance or U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance? Want to buy a full-page ad defending your members?

National Meat Assn. and American Meat Institute, CU is going after your members' pocketbooks. Care to hold a public discussion with them, maybe even call it a debate?

I would think that the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and National Pork Producers Council could collectively scrape up enough pocket change to counter this ad.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, you put your hand on a Bible and swore to promote American agriculture and our farmers and ranchers and to help them put safe, bountiful and affordable food on everyone's plates. Go get 'em, Mr. Secretary. Forget being politically correct, and fight.

What about the many farm bureaus and state agriculture departments? Are they going to let this tripe go unanswered?

A long time ago, when I was much younger and more naïve, I believed that CU and its Consumer Reports publication spoke the truth based on science and research. Unfortunately, I think much of the public still believes that and can be swayed by inaccurate and misleading information such as the drug abuse ad.

I wish CU would just go back to doing what they do well. Just tell us which toaster is best, not which meat to buy.

Volume:86 Issue:08

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