It's no secret we are in an antibiotic resistance crisis. Warnings about the looming post-antibiotic era are everywhere and people are being asked to help in whatever way they can. Yet, while we can all work to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in medicine, these achievements represent only a small fraction of the work that needs to be done.
The majority of antibiotic use occurs in agriculture. Yet the reason for this consumption has little to do with fighting infections. Instead, antibiotics are used to improve growth and ensure the animals are marketable. This practice leads to an increased risk for antibiotic resistance both in the animals and also in the environment.
Controlling this overuse of antibiotic has been a challenge. Some governments, including Canada, are in the process of enacting bans on antibiotics related to those used in medicine. However, in this country, we have yet to see any action taken to ensure these drugs are used properly.
While this direct route continues to meander its way through the bureaucratic system, other indirect routes have been used to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture. One of these involves speaking to consumers to choose items made from animals raised without antibiotics. The approach has worked to some extent. Some restaurants now boldly declare they no longer have antibiotics in their food chain. In addition, grocery stores have increased the number of so-called "antibiotic-free" options.
The threat of antibiotic resistance may be enough to convert some people to making a choice. Yet, a greater impact may be seen by attempting to alter actions by targeting personal beliefs. Known as affective behaviour, this aspect of human nature can make certain products appear to be more valuable simply based on what the person believes. Characteristics such as the country of origin, the incorporation of specific ingredients, or the name of manufacturer can influence the consumer to make a decision. Yet when it comes to antibiotic use and meat, it is not easy to figure which aspects of meat would affect the consumer.
Last week, a duo of American researchers attempted to accomplish the difficult task of finding one way to affect people's choices in meat. They performed a study to identify whether certain messages regarding the origin of meat could change future purchasing behaviour. While the researchers were ready for anything, the results revealed the path forward may not be as problematic as expected.
The two researchers carried out three experiments with 146, 248, and 117 people each. This was a large enough population to gain a potentially universal perspective. Each experiment offered the volunteers two samples of a different type of meat: beef jerky, roast beef, and ham. Right before the people ate the sample, they told about the type of farm from which the animal was sourced. One was from a humane farm raised without antibiotic growth promoters and a factory farm where chemicals were used.
The tests proceeded much like a taste test. When the individuals were finished eating the samples, they were asked to describe their experience and whether they would consider purchasing the product in the future. In essence, the researchers wanted to know if the mere knowledge of the source of the animal would lead to differences in individual opinion and choice.
The results were astonishing. In all three cases, the humane farm samples were considered to be much better in taste and quality and definitely worth purchasing. The same could not be said for the sample from the factory farm sample. Volunteers gave these meats much lower marks and were less inclined to spend money on the product.
There of course was a catch to this experiment. The samples given to the volunteers were all exactly the same. The descriptions were fallacies meant to sway the experience through affective behaviour. While the authors had hoped there would be some difference, this significant difference between the two types of samples based solely on the source was remarkable.
The results of this study may not be entirely universal. Yet they do point to a change in the way people perceive meat and how it is produced. The concept of the factory farm seems to be losing approval in place of more traditional farming practices.
This change in affective behaviour bodes quite well not only for public health officials but also to governments who are still slow to ban antibiotics. After all, if the consumer decides they want an antibiotic-free meat supply, then no legislation will be needed as producers will have to conform to survive. Antibiotic use will decline and no one will feel they have been forced into it. No matter how you look at it, this could be a win-win situation for everyone.
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