What does the ‘antibiotic-free’ label really mean?
It’s hardly any surprise that consumers are confused, writes Nedim Üzey, Corporate Affairs and Market Access Manager at Elanco Turkey.

Whether you buy meat, milk or eggs specifically-labelled ‘antibiotic-free’ or not, you’re still buying something that will be free of harmful antibiotic residues.

This is because farmers by law must adhere to strict regulations, so these foods are safe for human consumption.

So why all the confusion?

There are several triggers, but let me outline three key points. First, consumers are demanding reassurance that food doesn’t contain unnecessary levels of antibiotics.

This is a result of confusing and often negative information reported about the livestock industry, which suggests animals are raised on a mix of antibiotics, hormones and/or other synthetic nutrients.

According to a global survey conducted by Elanco, 31 per cent of urban residents believe a ‘great deal’ of antibiotics are used for raising livestock. In fact, antibiotics are limited to therapeutic uses across the majority of the world.

Some 41 per cent of respondents also consider that a ‘great deal’ of hormones are used in poultry production, which is absolutely not true.

Secondly, marketers of food companies have responded to this consumer concern with on-package information as they seek to differentiate their products. And finally, consumers are rightly concerned about the growth of antimicrobial resistance.

To me, there’s a real danger that linking these factors makes concerns about food safety a bigger issue – one that could negatively impact the purchasing decisions (and therefore the nutrition) of families.

Regulatory agencies all over the world are seeking to address this. There has been a step-change in the use of shared-class antibiotics in livestock by veterinarians, which has been catalysed by new strict industry-led voluntary agreements.

Veterinarians and producers acknowledge consumer concern over antibiotic-use. And they are taking significant steps to save critically important antibiotics, like making better use of diagnostic tools on-farm to understand the most appropriate antibiotic to administer.

Farmers are also doing their bit. Many of them have a good understanding of the importance of management practices – such as ventilation and other biosafety rules – that improve the health of their animals. But consumers may not be aware of these advances.

As animal health industry, we need to be better at communicating the positive story around antibiotics to consumers, so they feel confident that whatever meat they buy, labelled or not, antibiotics are not an ingredient.

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