Ag Industry Leaders Turn to Hollywood to Influence Public Opinion

Agribusiness spinmeisters reach new level of sophistication.

I recently received no fewer than three press releases (plus a phone call) regarding a Food Dialogues event to be held in Hollywood. I thought, “Wow, they must really want me to go.” The event was billed as a series of discussions about the “realities” of food production, promising to bring together, “entertainment movers and shakers, chefs, academics, large restaurant operators, journalists, local leaders, and farmers and ranchers,” to discuss how food is grown and raised.

At first glance, I thought it sounded great. After all, I mostly write about food production so I’m always keen to learn more from a broad range of perspectives. Though I have my ideas about the kind of food system I’d like to see (ecologically based, small-medium scale, humane, diverse production) I recognize that I’m not a farmer and probably could use an education on the “realities” of food production from the farmers’ point of view. There was even a tour of a famous Hollywood urban farm listed on the program. I got excited until I looked a little more deeply into the group (and its PR company) organizing the event. That’s when I realized I’d almost been had.

The event is to be presented by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) and their PR Company, Ketchum, part of a program for which the partnership has won a prestigious PR award in the brand building and reputation management categories. From their press release, USFRA is “a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer and rancher led organizations and agricultural partners.” I have to give them credit for transparency. Their list of affiliates, partners, and board members is easy to find. It includes a number of state farm bureaus, industry groups such as the National Pork Board, United Egg Producers, the National Corn Growers Association, and the National Milk Producers Federation. There are no individual farmers on the list, but it’s not that surprising, as farmers (like in other industries) organize into groups to help them advance their interests. A look at the industry partners and advisors section, however, is going to raise a few eyebrows in sustainable food circles. The premier partner advisory group consists of DuPont, John Deere, Pfizer Animal Health, and of course, the food movement’s favorite whipping boy, Monsanto. Industry partners include some biggies too: Archer Daniels Midland and Dow AgroSciences to name two.

So what are these stalwarts of the conventional, industrial food system doing masquerading (sort of) as movement types? From their press release, USFRA “recognizes that Americans have important questions about our food and how it is produced,” and the alliance can “help farmers and ranchers answer consumers’ and influencers’ questions, including the tough ones, about food production.”

I still wanted to keep an open mind about these food discussions. Because, after all, agribusiness is a reality, and everyone in the food production business should be talking to one another and sharing best practices. I thought, optimistically, that maybe these groups are beginning to see the impossibility of sustaining the current chemical and petroleum-dependent system and really do want to engage in discussions with consumers and influencers.

I chose to look at one issue covered on their website, antibiotic use in agriculture, and compare the alliance’s presentation of the “facts” with published facts from other sources.  Here’s what I found:

USFRA Fact number 1:

Producers consult with veterinarians about antibiotic use: Veterinarian involvement is mandated for all antibiotics approved since 1988.

Real World Fact: It wasn’t until April 11, 2012 that the FDA announced a rule requiring farmers to get a prescription from a vet before issuing antibiotics. The USFRA claim that prescriptions were “mandated” since 1988 refers to a rule issued that only applied to new drugs. According to the source document USFRA provides from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “many of the older antimicrobials are available for over-the-counter sale to producers.” The entire source document serves as a strong plea to farmers to use antimicrobials judiciously and under the supervision of a veterinarian. USFRA must not have thought anyone would read the source document they provided, as it doesn’t help make their case. I came away convinced that the veterinary community is concerned about overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, although, probably due to close ties with powerful farmer/rancher groups and drug companies, they don’t actually say it.

USFRA Fact Number 2:

All Milk Tested for Antibiotics: All milk is strictly tested for antibiotics on the farm and at the processing plant. Any milk that tests positive cannot be sold to the public.

Real World Fact: This is mostly true. Every tanker load of milk is tested before processing and if antibiotic residues are found, it is dumped. Farmers are not required to test their milk, though many do.

USFRA Fact Number 3:

Meat and Poultry for Food Are Rigorously Monitored By Law: Meat and poultry for human consumption must pass inspection and monitoring by FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service).

Real World Fact: In addition to recent moves by the FSIS to privatize poultry inspection, the sheer number of food poisoning cases requiring hospitalization a year (around 50,000) makes this claim of “rigorous monitoring” by FSIS debatable. Current numbers on food contamination cases can be found here

USFRA Fact Number 4:

Many Antibiotics Sold for Animal Use Are Not Used to Treat Humans: According to FDA statistics, 35 percent of antibiotics sold for animal use are in classes not used in human medicine. And all antibiotics are carefully examined for any human health implications before approved and incorporated into labeling. This means they have no possibility of contributing to antibiotic resistance bacteria in people.

Real World Fact: According to the AVMA’s antimicrobial fact sheet, “the vast majority of antibiotic classes are used in both humans and animals.” And the same New York Times article referenced above notes that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals. Of these, about 80 percent are given through feed, with an additional 17 percent given in water. Just 3 percent were given by injection. This indicates that the antibiotics are not being used “judiciously” to treat sick animals, but as a matter of course. Furthermore, the same article goes on to say that public health officials began to worry about resistance way back in the 1970s but industry lobbying has prevented much action on banning certain classes of antibiotics until recently, when the Obama administration moved to restrict certain classes of antibiotics for use in food animals.

USFRA Fact Number 5:

When Organic Animals Are Sick, They May be Treated with Antibiotics: When an animal raised for food on an organic farm becomes ill, organic livestock producers utilize natural remedies. If these remedies are ineffective then it must be given medical treatment including antibiotics if appropriate for the illness. Once an animal is treated with antibiotics, it cannot be sold as organic.

Real World Fact: The above statement is true, but it’s pointless. Most people are concerned about the overuse of antibiotics on healthy animals or to induce growth. Few would argue against treating sick animals (organic or conventionally raised) to alleviate their suffering and prevent the spread of disease. The problem is with the routine use of antibiotics commonly practiced in agriculture today, not in using antibiotics to treat illness.

USFRA Fact Number 5:

FDA Approval Process Is Stringent: FDA has a stringent approval process for veterinary medicines and antibiotics – much like that for human medications. In fact, antibiotics for use in animals require the same testing as those used in humans, with the additional requirement that they must be tested to ensure meat and milk from the animal given the medicine will be safe for human consumption.

Real World Fact: This is a sweeping generalization that doesn’t really address the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Safe or not, it’s resistance we’re worried about. Not to mention, despite the FDA’s approval process, examples abound of cases where approved drugs were found to have deadly side effects.

USFRA Fact Number 6:

No Cases of Animal Antibiotic Use Leading to Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs: There has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotics use in animals for consumption.

Real World Fact: Proven is the key word here. The use of antibiotics in agriculture is so prevalent (remember 80% of all antibiotics are used on animals) that establishing a causative link between specific human cases of resistant infections and specific cases of farmers using antibiotics is impossible. But the links are getting stronger, as recent investigative pieces in the Los Angeles Times, and Self magazine indicate. And a recent study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) found that a resistant strain of MRSA has jumped from animals from humans. It’s time that farmer groups and regulators start paying attention to this because waiting for a proven link could prove to have widespread and deadly consequences.

I get that farmers are tired of being demonized for the failures of the food system, but the professional organizations to which they belong seem intent on preserving the status quo and ignoring the very real threats to the continued viability of the current system. As a long-range business plan, I find this lacking. Instead of spending money on PR to influence the conversation, why not break away from the agribusiness sponsors such as Monsanto and DuPont and start having some real, honest conversations among their diverse membership about how to start to shift away from some of these practices that the public has very good reason to be worried about?

Images:AtomicPope, Lee Cannon, Wongaboo, andyarthur

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.