Free is a word in the food industry that’s given a boost to several new products. First came fat-free, then gluten-free and now antibiotic-free is in the consumer lexicon.

Colleen Bradford Krantz goes behind the label on how advertising is factoring into the food supply. 

Recent advertising campaigns by some of the nation’s largest poultry producers illustrate how central questions over antibiotic use have become in the pursuit of customer loyalty.

Perdue Foods commercial: “At Perdue we take some steps to raise chickens with no antibiotics ever. For example, thyme. It’s part of our 100 percent veggie diet that we feed our chickens and helps support their immune system. And we don’t need to add antibiotics to their diet.”

Sanderson Farms commercial: “’I’m no marketing guru but this guy is. He’s from Madison Avenue. He likes to say things like: ‘Raised without antibiotics.’’ ‘That’s a phrase invented to make chickens sound safer but it doesn’t mean much because by federal law, all chickens must be clear of antibiotics before they leave the farm.’ ‘I got more: ‘Mom approved. Caffeine Free...”

Clinical pharmacology professor Hans Coatzee, formerly with Iowa State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and now with Kansas State University, worries that companies are sending conflicting messages as they struggle to address this complex issue with customers.

Hans Coetzee, professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, Iowa State University: “I am concerned that increasingly this is becoming an area of product differentiation. To the extent where it could potentially start a protein war where poultry companies are trying to distinguish their product from, say, swine production companies or beef production companies by making statements about their product being ‘antibiotic free.’ … All meat is considered antibiotic free based on the fact that farmers observe these withdrawal periods and there is the testing at the time of harvest.”

The most recent federal report shows that only 9 of more than 6,000 animals randomly tested at U.S. packing plants – almost two-tenths of one percent - had higher-than-allowed levels of substances such as antibiotics. None were poultry.

Yet, according to a National Chicken Council 2015 survey, 73 percent of Americans believe antibiotics are present in most chicken meat. For meat producers, this common misconception can clash with the old adage: “the customer is always right.”

In an attempt to allay fears that antibiotic resistance in humans may increase if the same drugs are used too frequently in animals, the federal government will enact new rules in January 2017 prohibiting the use of so-called “medically-important antibiotics” to promote growth. Despite the new regulations, veterinarians will still be able to approve the use of these drugs for sick animals.

Producers may find themselves having to decide between treating sick animals and avoiding the customer aversion to the word “antibiotic.”

Hans Coetzee clinical pharmacology professor, Iowa State: “I think the interesting thing is how we relate to animals in our homes versus how we relate to animals in livestock production systems. I think most people – including our household – would consider our pet to be part of our family, and you wouldn’t for a moment consider withholding antibiotics from a member of your family if the animal or child requires an antibiotic.”

Maryland-based Perdue Foods, the nation’s number-four chicken producer, is advertising so-called “NEA” meat – or no antibiotics ever – following a gradual change in how bird health is managed.

Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president, Perdue Farms: “The use of antibiotics in food animals has become pretty complicated and it’s definitely a concern to consumers.”

Simultaneously, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms, the number-three producer, explains it will still use a class of antibiotics intended only for animals. New ads make the point that implying all antibiotics are bad is a misleading “marketing gimmick.”

Lampkin Butts, president/chief operating officer, Sanderson Farms: “I will tell you it has been a hard decision. It has been difficult. We feel like we are swimming upstream to tell you the truth.”

Sanderson Farms has carefully measured consumer reaction to the new ads rolled out in August 2016 and discovered about 65 percent wanted to learn more.

Lampkin Butts, president/chief operating officer, Sanderson Farms: “We always believed: let’s tell the customer the truth. Let’s tell the consumer the truth. The truth will stand the test of time. And that’s what we are doing with this issue.”

According to the National Chicken Council, the average chicken mortality rate at commercial broiler operations was 4.8 percent in 2015. NCC officials say that percentage has increased slightly over previous years, in part due to the effort to use fewer antibiotics. Sanderson said its 2015 mortality rate was 3.9 percent. Perdue said that information was “confidential” but added that their rate was “at or above the national average.”

Kansas State’s Coetzee believes all livestock producers should be transparent about how many animals they start with and how many make it to market.

Hans Coetzee clinical pharmacology professor, Iowa State: “I think if we are going to have an environment where we operate different systems of production, it’s important that we are transparent about all aspects of those production systems rather than just cherry picking.”

Sanderson Farms, whose contract farmers raise 10 million chickens a week, use antibiotics in the hatcheries and animal-only medicine in feed, stopping in advance of the mandatory withdrawal period. Otherwise, the medically important antibiotics are only used to treat sick birds or flocks.

Lampkin Butts, president/chief operating officer, Sanderson Farms: “Our vets have all taken an oath to treat animals and keep animals healthy … We have heard from other vets and other companies that they respect our position.”

Perdue Foods has been working since 2002 to provide chicken houses where birds are separated so they can be advertised as “no antibiotics ever.”

Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president, Perdue: “Generally, once several chickens get sick within a house, they can easily make the rest of the chickens in the house sick so what we do is treat the house and take that house completely out of the

No Antibiotics Ever program.”

In 2008, Perdue stopped using antibiotics in feed for growth promotion and redesigned poultry buildings to reduce bacterial growth. By 2013, antibiotic use in the hatcheries was ended and different vaccines were being used.

Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president, Perdue: “Over three-fourths of our chickens are raised with no antibiotics ever.”

The treated birds are sold under another Perdue label.

Hans Coetzee clinical pharmacology professor, Iowa State: “It’s a delicate balance between balancing the needs of the animals… and balancing the financial considerations and needs of the producer to make a living and also balancing the needs of the consumer expectations to not only ensure that the product is safe and doesn’t pose a risk in terms of potentially containing a resistant bacteria but also making sure that, from an ethical standpoint, those animals are raised in a way that they have a good life and don’t suffer and that they are free of illness.”