Sanderson Farms’ lonely crusade

by Keith Nunes
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Chicken processor Sanderson Farms is launching a marketing program to educate consumers about the use of antibiotics in poultry production, and attempting to bring clarity to a complicated subject that is sometimes characterized in simplistic and apocalyptic terms by critics. This effort merits close attention.

The Sanderson Farms campaign features print, radio and television marketing materials that will run in the 24 U.S. media markets where the company’s products are sold. The budget supporting the initial launch is between $5 million and $6 million. When asked by a financial analyst on Aug. 25 how long the program will run, Joe Sanderson Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Sanderson Farms, simply said, “… it is permanent. We feel like we have to do it to support our retailers and, based on the response we have gotten, we’re going to continue it for the foreseeable future.”

The primary message of the campaign is simple: All chicken is free of antibiotics when it leaves the farm, because that is a requirement of Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations dating back to the 1950s. Sanderson Farms is taking these steps because management believes consumers are being misled by the many companies promoting such attributes as “antibiotic free” on labels. The company accurately points out in its ads that chicken products labeled as “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever” have not been proven to be healthier or safer than other poultry, and the company emphasizes that “all chicken is antibiotic free.”

“At Sanderson Farms, we have a responsibility to empower consumers to make informed decisions by debunking the myths perpetuated through the media and the unfortunate use of misleading labels,” Mr. Sanderson said when the campaign was introduced in early August. “Some in the industry, by way of their labels and advertising efforts, have misled consumers to believe that only their chicken is raised cage free and is free of antibiotics and added hormones.”

Compounding the challenges Sanderson Farms faces is the issue of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. Antibiotic resistance and the threat it poses to the care and treatment of people is very real, but the threat is not all encompassing. It relates to the use of antibiotics deemed medically important to humans, and the animal agriculture sector is working with the F.D.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Obama administration to reduce the use of or even phase such medicines out of animal production.

“The truth is, we have not seen any credible scientific research to support the idea that the judicious use of antibiotics in chicken contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance in humans,” said Phil Stayer, corporate veterinarian for Sanderson Farms. “At Sanderson Farms, we believe we have a moral responsibility to protect the welfare of our animals, and as veterinarians, we have taken an oath to relieve the suffering of animals, particularly those under our supervision. It’s simply the humane thing to do.”

This antibiotics issue may have broad interest in the food industry in part because of parallels to other controversies, including the use of bioengineered ingredients or ingredients perceived as artificial in finished food and beverage products. Typically, marketing campaigns defending a criticized ingredient or practice are left to trade associations or other third parties to organize and implement. Companies may fund such initiatives and use the resulting marketing materials produced, but not so often do they take as high a profile on an issue as Sanderson Farms in its campaign about the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

For Sanderson Farms, the decision to launch the marketing campaign carries high stakes. Whether it succeeds or fails, other companies may gain insights into how to bring clarity to murky consumer issues of concern. 
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