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Non-Antibiotics a Case of Choice; What About Taste?

07:57AM May 12, 2014

BT Rotator Beef Consumer( Wyatt Bechtel )

Food executives address the use of antibiotics and how it relates to a tasty eating experience for consumers.

Use of antibiotics in animals has been a hot topic politically and at the dinner table. Some consumers are interested in alternative methods to raising livestock and several companies have been willing to offer those customers what they want.

Last year Panera Bread Company came under fire from the agriculture community because of some advertising campaigns that the popular restaurant chain was using to sell products. Panera was propping up its non-antibiotic chicken as being a better option than "easy chicken" or conventionally raised animals.

During the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit a panel was hosted on antibiotic use in animals and Dan Kish, head chef and VP of Food for Panera, had a chance to offer some insight on how the company markets their food.

"We made a move 10 years ago to convert our chickens to antibiotic free, vegetarian fed. At the time for a restaurant chain of our size it was not normal," Kish says.

The initial conversations had nothing to do with antibiotics, but rather those moves were made so customers could have a more enjoyable eating experience.

"All of the reasons we do the things we do begin with taste," Kish adds. "Taste always comes first and we try to make sure we are very transparent in what is on the menu."

Panera set out to find chicken that taste like chicken, so the restaurant chain started a relationship with Bell & Evans, a chicken processor specializing in natural products.

Kish believes if less is done to food when it is being raised then it will translate into a better product for consumers.

Besides Panera, there have been an increasing number of restaurants and food companies utilizing a model of selling food with a moral conscious.

Perdue Farms, Inc. has seen the opportunity of non-antibiotic food as a way to build stakeholder trust in the chicken company’s business.

Joe Forsthoffer, director of corporate communications at Perdue, was also on the panel with Kish and he sees a number of factors influencing consumer decision making and not all of those are science or fact-based.

"Food and science are two words that often time’s consumers don’t like hearing together," Forsthoffer states. "We know what they are looking for is a deeper connection to their food."

Those types of feelings have driven consumers to seek out non-antibiotic products like Perdue’s antibiotic-free chicken offerings. Forsthoffer relates that we need to be cognizant of those consumer feelings, even if those feelings aren’t rational we need to respect them or they won’t respect us.

Perdue offers an array of products under several different brand names that meet different preferences for customers. Perdue’s house brand chickens are fed an all vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts for much the same reason that Panera did: because it taste better, Forsthoffer says.

The Coleman Natural Food and the HARVESTLANDER brands are no-antibiotics-ever or organic programs that employee either free-range or barn-raised housing systems for chicken, turkey and pork. Local brands have been implemented on the West Coast as well.

"We support consumer choice. We don’t believe that there is one right way to produce food within our company or necessarily throughout the world," Forsthoffer says.

Certified Angus Beef (CAB) has taken a similar approach in offering consumers a choice at the grocery store or restaurant with the driving force being taste.

John Stika, president of CAB, shares during the panel, "As it relates to messaging, our message to consumers has been very consistent for the 35 years of our organization. It’s been centered on taste."

What keeps driving consumers back to a product will consistently be taste and value, Stika says.

"Along with that there come these other intrinsic values that determine quality in the eyes of a consumer that have come to the marketplace," Stika relates.

To help meet the quality demands of customers CAB introduced in 2000 the CAB Prime brand. A few years later retail and foodservice partners began demanding another option, so CAB Natural was started in 2004.

"As we are all aware natural is a term that has a very clear definition by USDA, ‘minimally processed, no artificial ingredients.’ What we found is the consumer has a very different interpretation of what the term natural might mean," Stika says.

CAB put in place a never, never ever program in its natural stipulations. Meaning cattle have never been given supplemental growth promotants, antibiotics or fed animal byproducts.

There were concerns on how the natural product would affect the marketing of the traditionally sold CAB product. However, what happened was consumers shopped for their wants and needs across categories. One product did not end up disparaging the other because the company was not invested in just non-antibiotics.

"We were very clear and pointed to the fact that we felt both of them were extremely wholesome, both were safe, and both the original brand and the extension were products that rest assured would taste well," Stika adds.

Now in its tenth year CAB Natural has offered another option for consumers, but it has not had a major impact on the business’ bottom-line. Only 2% of CAB’s 860 million lbs. of product sold last year came from that particular brand, with the remaining 98% coming from traditional methods of raising beef.

Stika says CAB’s approach has been clear in that the programs are about providing choices to consumers. "If we offer choices we tend to win."

The sessions from the
Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit: 2014 Cracking the Millennial Code can be found here.