When science and some consumers are on opposite sides of an issue

May 9, 2017

March for Science rallies around the world recently called attention to increasing attacks on science.

It’s a legitimate issue and I applaud the sentiment.

But it can be discouraging when groups or individuals choose to support science only when it supports issues on which they’ve already made up their minds.

About antibiotics, science tells us:

• Responsible use in food animals is not a leading cause of antibiotic resistance in humans.
• Unsafe residue in food from animals treated with them is practically non-existent.
• Responsible use decreases livestock and poultry’s environmental footprint.

Yet arguments continue regardless of facts because decision-making processes people use are complex.

Many factors drive consumer opinions, feelings and beliefs, and science-based facts are only one part of the process. This is especially true with emotional issues such as bacterial resistance and its potential impact on family and friends.

As humans, we like to be part of the herd, so we tend to flock to groups that think like we do and science that fits our bias. Social scientists point to decision-making processes such as “confirmation bias” and “cultural cognition” to help explain how people take evidence into consideration and make decisions on issues.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. Once people form a view, they tend to embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. People will gravitate toward opinion leaders and web sites that confirm their perspective.

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of people to support positions that reinforce their connection to others whose values they share. It can be equated to fans at a sporting event. No matter what the issue, people take cues about what they should feel and believe from the cheers and boos of their team’s crowd.

Consumer questions about food production and the role antibiotics play are understandable. They deserve honest, straightforward answers. The consolidation, integration and application of technology that makes food safer, yet healthy and affordable, also prompts debates about whether science benefits society.

The good news is we have plenty of good stories to tell that are based in science.

There’s strong evidence that antibiotics used in livestock and poultry are not driving antibiotic resistance in humans. The Centers for Disease Control identified the most concerning public health threats from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. None of the most urgent threats have a direct connection to farm animals.

On the broader CDC list, which includes less urgent threats, only two of 18 involve bacteria associated with farm animals.

Responsible use of antibiotics does, indeed, minimize agriculture’s environmental impact. When left untreated, sick animals can die. Then more animals, food and water are required to produce the same amount of consumable meat, which drives up the cost at the grocery store.

With more animals to feed, more grain must be grown, which requires more fertilizer, water and acres of land.

Allowing farmers and veterinarians to prevent disease, or treat sick animals when necessary, conserves natural resources which is good for the environment and good for everybody.

Unsafe antibiotic residue in food from animals is uncommon because there are science-based safeguards in place to prevent it.

Mandatory antibiotic withdrawal periods in animals and routine testing of meat by the Department of Agriculture and food companies ensure our food is safe. And, the use of antibiotics in animals actually improves food safety because it leads to an overall decrease in bacteria.

There is scientific acknowledgement that the use of antibiotics in people is the primary source of antibiotic resistance. However, everyone in food and agriculture should recognize that antibiotics must be used responsibly to support overall efforts to keep antibiotics effective.

We know science alone will not build public support for antibiotics in agriculture. But we also know that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is the ethical thing to do. When animals are sick, they deserve to be treated.

I’ve found that when I talk to people about antibiotics and explain both the science and the ethics, it’s a winning combination. After all, keeping healthy food affordable and taking care of animals are two points we all should be able to agree on.

I welcome your thoughts and questions. Please feel free to send me an email at AskDrDorman@pahc.com or call me at 844-288-3623. You can also browse our Resource Library to learn more about this important topic.