The 60 Minutes report on antibiotic use in pig farms was full of inaccuracies, driven by emotion, motivated by an underlying agenda and interestingly timed with Impossible Foods’ announcement of a pork and sausage alternative.
There’s no question why the pork industry is reeling. The report was not a positive or truthful depiction. In a recent PORK poll, we asked people what they thought was the biggest problem in the report. The poll revealed, to no one’s surprise, that 60 Minutes missed it all.
The one voice for the pork industry – National Pork Producers Council’s chief veterinarian Liz Wagstrom – had less than two minutes of her 80-minute interview included in the piece.
“I’m sure she [Dr. Liz Wagstrom] did a good job of explaining how pig farmers and veterinarians across the country take their role in animal care seriously, including disease prevention techniques and the use of antibiotics when and if necessary,” said Peggy Greenway, a pig farmer from South Dakota. “I’m sure she also talked about stricter regulations surrounding antibiotic use, how withdrawal times prevent unsafe residues in meat, how making sure animals are healthy before they enter the food chain ensures safe food for all of us, how farms participate in third-party audits…But you’ll never hear the major points of her 80-minute interview because they cut 78 minutes of it and tossed them out the window.”
A fear-mongering agenda
During an episode of AgriTalk last week, Chip Flory said, “As a journalist, I'm watching the report and I'm thinking okay, there's a regional story here. They had an outbreak of salmonella on those roaster pigs that came from one slaughterhouse. They went to the slaughterhouse. The place is filthy with the bacteria. Start of story, middle of the story, end of story. There it is. But then they turned it into this national story that we're overusing antibiotics. They turned it into a fear story again.”
Flory’s guest, Iowa Pork Producers Association President Trent Thiele, said he can’t blame people for factoring in emotions when it comes to making decisions for their family. But sadly, 60 Minutes didn’t represent what is actually happening on farms today.
“We want to do what's right. We eat the same pork – we want good, safe, healthy, delicious pork, too. Most of the decisions we make are all science-driven,” Thiele said. “I know we were portrayed by just doing what is financially best for us, but that is not true at all. We are doing what’s best for the pig.”
Transparency at the farm
Poll respondents said the top miss in the report was “lack of interview with actual pig farmers,” capturing 33% of the votes.
“If people want to know the truth, ask a farmer,” reader Peggy L. Packer wrote on social media. “Don’t rely on the sensationalism of the media wanting higher ratings, actors/actresses looking for attention or publicity, or animal rights groups who have never lived and worked on a farm.”
Respondents also thought the report inaccurately portrayed modern hog farming and housing, capturing the second “miss” in the PORK poll with 18% of the votes and inaccurately portrayed modern animal welfare practices with 13% of the votes.
We aren’t raising pigs in a “black box,” despite the insinuation in the report by Lance Price, a microbiologist at George Washington University.
And with the direction of Lesley Stahl’s questioning, what farmer wants to host a national news organization with a clear angle?
It’s disappointing 60 Minutes didn’t get a look inside a modern pig farm, said Jennifer Stewart-Deppe, a communications counselor at MorganMyers and member of a family in the purebred swine business.
"I don't know what NPPC offered and only saw the small part of their extensive interview that made it into the segment that aired. However, when engaging in this type of interview, you have to be all in, including the farm visit. Make the crew go through the sanitation protocols, show them the facility and walk through key protocols for animal care and practices, including antibiotic use," Stewart-Deppe said.
We must be transparent and find ways to open our doors. We need to show the world what real pig farming is all about. It’s not an easy ask and requires extra time and extra effort to protect the health and wellbeing of our pigs. But from my perspective, we have nothing to hide and consumer confidence to gain.
“People are very suspicious of the fact that they can’t see what’s going on. They jump to conclusions and don’t think about the fact that there’s probably a very good reason why,” said Leia Flure, a dietitian who went on her first pig farm visit in the fall of 2018.
She shared on her blog that there’s a lot more to pig farming than she could have imagined.
“After the tour, I feel much better prepared to answer consumer questions and I can say without reservation that I have full confidence in the safety and quality of pork — from farm to fork,” Flure said.
Of course, these decisions about who you let on your farm can’t be made lightly. Just as you would vet anyone coming to your home or business for a tour, you must vet those who want to tour your farm. And how many people can add hours of work to their already-full day? Fortunately, there are ways we can show what’s going on at the farm today that can take the place of on-site tours such as virtual tours, photos on social media or blogging.
Antibiotic use practices misrepresented
Broad scientific knowledge says antibiotics in people is the primary source of antibiotic resistance, the National Pork Producers Council wrote in a response. Debate continues about whether drug-resistant microbes in animals pose a significant public health burden, according to the National Institutes of Health website.
Social media posts after the 60 Minutes report were filled with frustrated farmers voicing their concerns about how antibiotic practices were portrayed.
“People talk like we are pouring antibiotics into livestock for no reason. Why would any sane person do that?” wrote one reader.
Pork producers have to abide by rules and regulations, Thiele added.
“It is illegal to sell pork with any antibiotic residue left in it and that is set forth by the FDA,” Thiele said. “They are portraying that we are selling our pork with antibiotics left in them that will help build resistance to antibiotics. And that is not true.”
As the footage turned to inspectors evaluating pork carcasses and inaccuracies about USDA’s New Swine Inspection System, I found myself even more frustrated. No one talked about the fact that the system hadn’t been updated for 50 years and that the decisions made were based on science. No one shared how the new system would encourage everyone on the line to be an inspector and take responsibility for that plant sending out only the best.
It’s hard to deny there was an agenda. 60 Minutes didn’t talk to an inspector or a pig farmer. Impossible Foods, a company with a mission to replace animals in the global food system by 2035, released their attempt at Impossible Pork and Impossible Sausage two days after the episode aired. It hardly seems like a coincidence.
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