Veterinarians can leverage their credibility to help consumers understand the complexity of the decision-making process for antimicrobials used in pork production, said Locke Karriker, DVM, a professor at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
In an interview with Pig Health Today, Karriker noted that consumer perceptions about antibiotic and antimicrobial use vary widely. While some believe they are a critical part of efficient, ethical pork production if used responsibly, others frown on their use under any circumstances and say they should be reserved for human medicine alone.
He added that many consumers have incorrect perceptions about antibiotic use in pork production. Some believe it is a tool that compensates for what they perceive to be poor management practices while improving profitability; others believe the industry ignores preventive measures — good biosecurity, for instance — and uses antibiotics to cover that up.
Karriker said veterinarians can fight these erroneous perceptions by serving as ambassadors for the industry, their clients and their profession.
Communicate at their level
The best way to do that is to communicate with consumers on their level, he said. Merely publishing papers or releasing annual scientific disclosures won’t suffice.
Karriker, who spoke on this topic at the 2018 American Association of Swine Veterinarians conference, said the challenge is to get other veterinarians to consider that their perceptions may not always be in sync with those of consumers, particularly those who have reached different conclusions.
While scientific arguments may be valuable to veterinarians and researchers in forming perceptions or arriving at conclusions, they are not always useful tools for helping consumers craft their perceptions, Karriker said.
“In the last 15 years, there has been a societal shift to peer-to-peer transfer of information and away from central, one-to-many distributions,” he noted in his presentation abstract. “Further, a number of studies suggests that [both] proximity of the source and the frequency with which a message is heard influences perceptions of credibility.
“The implication for swine veterinarians is that annual dissemination of research from a central, national source may have far less impact than constant, continuous, local discussion of the issue.”
To this end, veterinarians must be engaged constantly and be involve where discussions about this subject are held in order to help influence perceptions, Karriker said.
‘Get involved in the conversation’
“We have to get involved in the conversation,” he said, adding that veterinarians must talk about it at the local level, with friends, neighbors and family members and also create opportunities for consumers to visit farms.
He said it is important to help consumers understand that veterinarians also want to reduce the use of antibiotics. When pigs get sick, the opportunity to raise pigs without antibiotics is lost, he said.
“So, we’re focused on [disease] prevention,” Karriker said. “We want to find ways to prevent disease, so that we don’t have to use as much antimicrobial, either. We’re partners in the game to reduce antimicrobial use.”
He said part of the consumer-education process should include explaining exactly when and how veterinarians use antimicrobials.
“So-called growth promotion or sub-therapeutic uses [of medically important antibiotics] have ended in the US, as well as in many other countries,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, it is important to remember that consumers make the decisions.
“They vote with their purchasing power,” Karriker said. “They vote with their acceptance of the product. They vote with their influence on regulations and legislation that ultimately regulate the profession and what we do.”