For consumers who actively choose to forgo meat, they should be cautioned not to believe the claimed benefits outright: vegetarian or vegan diets hold many of the same food safety risks as meat-based diets. Moreover, easily fulfilling one’s nutritional requirements creates its own set of challenges. The meat industry has an obligation to counter emotional rhetoric with science-based fact and transparency, as consumers both need and want to be informed.

The Animal Activist Connection
The so-called gap of knowledge is expertly exploited by certain activist groups. They’ve become more strategic and “professional” in their approaches and now spend much time and money lobbying legislators, running ballot initiative campaigns and building business-to-business relationships with prominent food companies.[1]

Their primary goal is to influence how animals are raised. In particular, they pressure companies that buy large quantities of meat, milk and eggs to force changes in animal housing and husbandry practices upon their suppliers. Take, for example, in the swine industry, the hot button topic of individual gestation stalls versus group housing for gestating sows. According to Neil Dierks, chief executive officer of the National Pork Producers Council, animal activist groups are masterminds at exploiting the “gap of knowledge.”[2] Activists are telling food companies that more than 25 percent of gestating sows are already housed in groups, while in reality that number is closer to 6 percent. As a result, companies placing bans on buying pork from farms that utilize gestation stalls are going to have a very hard time acquiring the products they need to meet their demand.[2]

These campaigns against gestation stalls are just one example of how certain individuals are preying on consumer perceptions and utilizing those perceptions—or rather, misperceptions—to influence buying propensities and legislative agendas. In the February/March 2013 issue of Food Safety Magazine,[3] F. Bailey Norwood, Ph.D., and Jayson L. Lusk, Ph.D., authored an article entitled “Animal Welfare and Food Safety.” Although the article presented no scientific evidence of a correlation between humanely raised food and increased food safety—as the authors astutely pointed out, consumers don’t always pay attention to scientific evidence.

Instead, perceptions of food safety are just as important as actual safety—insofar as driving consumer choice and retail sales. It is clear that food producers, as well as everyone in the food chain—packers, processors and retailers—face a daunting challenge, as they must raise food that is bacteria-free and safe as well as convince consumers that their food came from animals that were humanely cared for. Even Norwood and Lusk acknowledge that activists “will go to great lengths to convince the public that their food is unsafe, so livestock industries must not only battle bacteria and germs but sensationalized information as well.”

There is no scientifically valid reason to eliminate red and processed meat and poultry from the diet. Lean meats align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the new “MyPlate” food guide.[4] Meat provides many underconsumed nutrients such as potassium, phosphorous and vitamin B12, a micronutrient found only in animal protein and often lacking in people over age 50.

Activists often cast doubt on the safety and healthfulness of meat products. By calling into question practices they term “factory farming,” the activist community leads consumers to believe that large-scale farms and processing facilities cannot humanely manage their animals, nor control or manage bacteria growth, which leads to foodborne illness.

With only 2 percent of our population producing food for more than 300 million Americans, consumers are relatively far removed from their food supply.[5] Many are not aware of the advances made in making, and keeping, food safe. While even one death is too many, it is important to note that for every 39 million Americans, only one will die of a food-related illness.[4]

Many in the food industry agree that they must gain ground in affecting public perception. Former genetically modified organism (GMO) foe Mark Lynas, for example, spent years of his life criticizing modern agricultural practices. Lately, however, he’s become one of the strongest advocates for U.S. farmers. In 2008, Lynas, a British author of three books on global climate change, wrote an editorial actively opposing GMOs.[6] Following a flurry of online comments, Lynas took a more critical look at GMO crops, and in the process, he learned that he had held an “anti-science” view of GMOs for too long, which contradicted the extensive research he had conducted on climate change using scientific sources. Lynas argues that Americans must conduct their own, independent inquiries into different topics.[7]

Food Safety Protocols Are Everyone’s Responsibility
If asked, arguably many consumers would probably consider foods derived from animals to be less safe than those derived from plants.3 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s most recent report, however, produce—not meat—was responsible for nearly half of all illnesses derived from food. Contaminated meat and poultry together, by contrast, were to blame for 22 percent of cases, whereas dairy and eggs accounted for 20 percent of illnesses.[8]

The report covers data from 1998 to 2008 and says that produce of all kinds was implicated in 46 percent of illnesses and 23 percent of deaths. These statistics closely match recent news headlines detailing stories of individuals sickened by jalapeños, melons, tomatoes, lettuce and peanuts.[9, 10] Specifically, leafy vegetables led the list for the largest share of illnesses at 17 percent. Some scholars may argue that this statistic is misleading as the contamination of leafy greens could be due to contamination at the point of service, for example, a food worker who contaminates a salad. This is not to say that vegetables shouldn’t be consumed as part of an overall healthy diet, but consumers may be recognizing that no one product is 100 percent safe—including vegetables and leafy greens.

Discrepancies about vegetables illustrate the two-sided coin often faced by the meat, poultry and egg industries. On the one side, fresh-cut leafy greens and vegetables come up as the nutritional stars of salad mixes, praised by doctors and public health agencies alike, many for being nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting natural compounds.

Flip that coin again, however, and you come up with recent warnings from the CDC about foodborne illnesses. What is important to note, though, is even the CDC is encouraging people not to be discouraged by these findings—just to be careful and practice good food safety habits to reduce the risks of illness. This message should carry through to consumers of every product—including meat, poultry and eggs. Food safety is the responsibility of us all, not just the producers, packers and retailers.

Producers of meat, poultry and egg products have long been familiar with increasingly specific regulations. The Federal Meat Inspection Act works to prevent adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products from being sold as food and to ensure that animals providing meat and meat products are slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.[11] These requirements also apply to imported meat products, which must be inspected under equivalent foreign standards.

The four primary requirements of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 were as follows: (1) mandatory inspection of livestock before slaughter; (2) mandatory postmortem inspection of every carcass; (3) sanitary standards established for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants and (4) authorized U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ongoing monitoring and inspection of slaughter and processing operations.[11] After 1906, many additional laws that further standardized the meat industry and its inspection were passed.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points is an additional management system that addresses food safety through the analysis and control of biological, chemical and physical hazards, from raw material production, procurement and handling to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished

As a result of stringent regulations and many advances through industry-led initiatives, large-scale meat processing operations have very rigorous food-safety systems in place; otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business today. Moreover, federal inspectors’ legally required presence in slaughterhouses and processing plants every day monitoring systems for both animal welfare violations and food safety issues should add a significant layer of confidence for consumers about meat, poultry and egg products.

Yet this confidence does not always resonate with consumers, which may be due, in large part to consumers not understanding agriculture in general. In a recent poll conducted by the Pork Network, respondents were asked the question, “How do you believe consumers feel about agriculture?” Approximately 78 percent of respondents felt “consumers like agriculture but don’t understand best-management practices.”[13] Interestingly, no one agreed that consumers “like agriculture and understand best-management practices,” and 22 percent of respondents answered that consumers “are negative about agriculture in general.”

Obviously, there is work to do to help the public understand livestock production and the practices associated with it. Research shows farmers themselves are highly respected and admired by consumers, so capitalizing on this positive image would seem a logical step forward.

Antibiotics: The Next Frontier for Debate
One of the issues most misunderstood by consumers, and thus one of the largest issues facing the meat industry, is antibiotic use in food animals.

In late February 2013, two leading Democrat members of Congress, Henry Waxman (CA) and Louise Slaughter (NY), introduced legislation aimed at providing more detail on the amount and use of antimicrobial drugs given to animals raised for food. The legislation, entitled the “Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency to Animals (DATA) Act,” states it will help public health officials and scientists “better understand and interpret trends and variations in antimicrobial resistance” and identify interventions for preventing and controlling drug resistance.[14]

This bill, however, is unnecessary as the animal agriculture industry already has the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) in place.[15] NARMS is a national public health surveillance system that tracks antibiotic resistance in foodborne bacteria. The NARMS program was established in 1996 as a partnership between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CDC and USDA.

NARMS monitors antimicrobial susceptibility among enteric bacteria from humans, retail meats and food animals. The major bacteria currently under surveillance are Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli and Enterococcus. NARMS also collaborates with antimicrobial resistance monitoring systems in other countries to work toward international harmonization of testing and reporting.[15] Currently, each NARMS agency publishes comprehensive annual reports.[16]
While some perceive that antibiotics are used to rapidly increase the growth of livestock animals, the truth is that farmers and ranchers work closely with their veterinarian to determine the best strategies to keep their animals safe and healthy. Antibiotics are one of several tools that farmers may use, when necessary, in a herd health program. When animals are sick or at risk of becoming sick, they should be treated in adherence to evidence-based standards of veterinary medicine in ways that don’t stress the animals or the environment and are in the best interest of long-term human health.[17]

Farmers and ranchers use antibiotics, when necessary, to humanely treat sick animals and to keep animals healthy, always in consultation with their veterinarian. In addition, farmers and ranchers can only use veterinary antibiotic medicines that are approved by FDA and used in accordance with FDA orders, guidance and requirements. FDA continues to monitor antibiotic medicines on a regular basis, to ensure the medicines are effective and safe for animals and their meat and milk products.

In Summary
While there is certainly a lot of misinformation circulating through both traditional and social media, the industry needs to continue to increase transparency and better explain standard industry practices to their customers as well as all consumers.

Conflicting scientific information and a lack of self-discovery and consumer-driven inquiry leads to a “knowledge gap” that can easily be exploited by groups opposed to the animal agriculture industry.

It is important to remember that there are risks and benefits to everything—eating a meat-free diet isn’t always as safe and healthy as portrayed, but too much meat and poultry isn’t healthful either. For consumers to make logical and well-informed choices, the meat industry must be more proactive in contributing to ongoing discussions with consumers. It is also important to remember, however, that the many choices consumers have at the grocery store are only available because of the dedicated farmers, ranchers and processors that work everyday to feed a hungry country and world.  

Emily Meredith is the communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. She received a B.A. in international affairs and journalism from The George Washington University and a J.D. from Seton Hall University.

Christopher Ashworth, D.V.M., is a veterinarian and owner of New Frontier Angus Ranches. He is the chairman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance and is currently president of the Arkansas Angus Association.

3. Norwood, F.B. and J.L. Lusk. 2013. Animal welfare and food safety. Food Safety Magazine 19(1): 46–53.