Ethics, Antibiotics, Consumer Opinion Shaping Buying Decisions

ANALYSIS - The ethics of meat production are issues that many consumers decide upon away from the supermarket, but as soon as they enter the store other driving factors take over, writes Chris Harris.
calendar icon 2 April 2013
clock icon 3 minute read

Inside the store, ethics drops down the list of priorities and price, freshness, quality and brand take over.

However, while ethical production might not seem so important for the individual consumer in making the buying decision, it is very important politically for the store, the processor and the producer and comes to the fore when mistakes are made and publicised.

Speaking at the recent National Office for Animal Health conference in London on Britain's Food Industry and dispelling myths about livestock production, David Evans, (pictured) the head of agriculture at the supermarket chain Morrisons, said that consumers views on ethical production are very broad and also inconsistent.

While they do not always affect the purchase decision, the consumers' views help to make them feel better about what they are buying and in a general sense go a long way to forming public opinion.

In this way, issues that arise over livestock production can become myths through miscommunication and misinterpretation.

Forming public opinion in this way can also develop myths around production practices, which then influence buying decisions.

"Unpicking the myth can be a very difficult job," said Mr Evans.

At one time, there were just the newspapers and television helping to propagate myths about livestock production and farming practices. Now, however, Mr Evans said, there is a plethora of social media that quickly and immediately acts as key influencers and help form public opinion.

One area in particular where there is a high risk of misunderstanding is in the on-farm use of antibiotics for livestock.

With so many forms of media spreading different communications about the issues, the public has a problem knowing which of the interested parties can be trusted, Mr Evans said.

He added that the industry has a problem with public opinion in producing an image of food that is being produced both sustainably and that is also affordable.

However, he said that by being more open about food production practices the food and livestock sector can help to change public opinion.

With regard to the use of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals in animal production, Mr Evans said that reducing their use is the correct thing to do for a large number of reasons, as they can be seen as being a waste and also that if they are used too much then there are underlying problems over resistance to various diseases.

But improved technologies will be a key factor in feeding the world sustainably and improving food production.

"Seventy per cent of improvement in food production is to come through new technology and part of the new technology is pharmaceuticals," Mr Evans said.

He added that public opinion helps to influence legislation on issues such as food, veterinary services, production and pharmaceuticals and organisations such as retailers have a role to play in helping to shape that opinion in a reasonable way.

He said that it is crucial that to manage antimicrobial resistance the focus has to be on managing diseases, by managing the environment, behaviour, pasture, monitoring and biosecurity.

Then the focus has to be on preventative pharmaceuticals and then on the early detection of disease and accurate recording and analysis of the data so that farming practices can be improved.

Finally the focus has to be on the responsible choice of medicines as a treatment.

"Of course you have to use medicines, but choose the right ones," Mr Evans said.

"You have to take a responsible approach to it."

The outcome will be reduced costs and improved productivity bringing improved profitability and less use of medicines.

This, he said, will produce a strong public message and managing information and communications to the wider public will become more important and more challenging.

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