Three antibiotic-free musketeers: Chipotle, Panera and Culver's

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This summer, agriculture seemed to take blow after blow on the antibiotic-free issue from restaurants and retailers. First, Panera Bread Company came out with its “EZ Chicken” campaign, which featured caricatures of pill chickens and implied that farmers who use antibiotics are taking the “easy” way out.

Antibiotic-free restaurants Then in late August, Chipotle Mexican Grill released its new animated short that depicted the “virtual” (or so Chipotle called it) reality of a sad Scarecrow broken by industrial agriculture. Mr. Scarecrow witnesses chickens being injected with neon green goo, cows in metal boxes and mystery meat labeled “beef-ish” rolling down large conveyor belts into animated grocery shoppers’ carts.

After both campaigns were released farmers and ranchers took to the blogosphere to shout their disappointment, disdain and desire to boycott from the rooftops.

I don’t blame them. In fact, I wholeheartedly cheer them on as they fight back against “big burrito” and “big bread.” After all, if it weren’t for farmers, those big restaurant chains wouldn’t have any product to sell.

But Panera and Chipotle aren’t the only ones advertising that their products are antibiotic-free. In fact, they’re just the latest in a long list of retailers who are gravely misstating the fact that all meat is technically antibiotic free.

In 2011, Culver’s ran a TV commercial, “Naturally Delicious,” which focused in part on the fact that its chickens are raised without antibiotics, are fed a “high-quality diet” and are raised in the beautiful countryside. An accompanying radio commercial, meanwhile, proclaimed that “when it’s raised right, it tastes right.”

While Culver’s announcement to source chicken that is raised without antibiotics got a lot of media attention, it didn’t seem to garner the same outrage from the animal agriculture communities as did the advertising campaigns of Panera and Chipotle.

All three restaurants have the facts wrong about antibiotics, for certain, but maybe the real reason we’re not as upset with Culver’s is because its “antibiotic free” announcement didn’t contain inflammatory slogans and emotional animations. Sure, they made claims about how antibiotic-free chicken is more “plump and juicy” and “tastes better,” but they didn’t go beyond that and design pill chickens or put cows in metal boxes. They didn’t inflame the public by using fear.

This week, the Huffington Post launched a new website that features blogs all about food. This website is a partnership with Chipotle that’s meant to “jumpstart the discussion about where food comes from.” Sounds like a noble goal.

Yet on this new site, there’s not a single blogger that’s writing from the producer standpoint--there’s no one telling the actual story of the American farmer or rancher. The truth is, these discussions about food production are happening every day on social and traditional media and behind closed doors, as associations, like the Alliance, try to reach out and have meaningful conversations with retailers about hot-button issues like antibiotics.

Companies like Chipotle aren’t discreet in sharing that their marketing tactics are geared towards millennials, who are, by definition, a complex breed of individuals born between 1985 and 2000. They’re a group that seems to buy into trends much more quickly and develop strong viewpoints on a seemingly fleeting whim.

They’re the biggest sector of the consumer market today, and for some reason, they trust companies like Chipotle over farmers and ranchers. And we have no idea why.

So while companies like Panera, Chipotle and yes, even Culver’s, are busy giving the millennials what they want, we in agriculture need to get busy cracking the millennial code.

And we need to do it fast.

Editor’s Note: Emily Meredith is the communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. Save the date for the 13th annual Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit, themed “Cracking the Millennial Code,” which will be held May 8-9, 2013 in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.



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