Public concerned about hormones, but is misinformed, research finds
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Consumer concerns about the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock over the last several years led a marketing firm to try to gauge the public's awareness, perceptions and behaviors regarding the issues.
"If the industry has a better understanding of what consumers know about these issues and how they react to them, we can be prepared to do a better job of proactively communicating with consumers ... and not be so quick to react to activists' demands when confronted with an issue individually," said Julie Murphy, market research manager for Midan, a marketing firm focused on the meat industry.
Midan surveyed 474 consumers last October about antibiotic and growth hormone use in livestock.
The survey found awareness and concern are high, but understanding of why the products are used and how they're regulated is lacking.
The survey found consumers were aware of the issues, with 79 percent having heard of antibiotic use and 85 percent having heard of the use of growth hormones.
Open-ended questions showed most consumers accurately think antibiotics are used to prevent or cure disease, and most think growth hormones were used to impact the size of animals or the time it takes them to grow, Murphy said in a webinar last week.
But the research revealed they didn't know the products are used safely and monitored.
When asked an unaided question as to their initial reaction to antibiotic use, 41 percent said they were concerned, with 14 percent very concerned. Topping their concerns, at 43 percent, was the possible negative impact on humans, followed by concerns about antibiotic resistance in humans at 18 percent.
Growth hormones brought even higher concerns, with 58 percent concerned and 24 percent very concerned. Of those concerned, 65 percent thought growth hormone usage could potentially harm them or their families.
When asked to choose their biggest concern between growth hormones and antibiotics, growth hormones were clearly their bigger concern at 54 percent, compared with 24 percent more concerned about antibiotics and 22 percent who weren't concerned about either, Murphy said.
What's interesting, she said, is that there was little to no concern expressed for the livestock.
When asked about their interest in purchasing meat from livestock that had not been treated with antibiotics or given growth hormones, 72 percent said they were interested. Yet when asked if their retailer carries such meat, 55 percent said they didn't know.
The survey also offered a list of true and false statements. The biggest misconception about antibiotics was that it was overused, with 76 percent answering true. When it came to growth hormones, even more consumers were misinformed, Murphy said.
As for growth hormones causing early puberty in humans, 78 percent answered true. In addition, 64 percent thought it was true growth hormones could cause illness or cancer in humans, and 38 percent thought it was true they could change the genetic make-up of humans.
Midan then offered respondents some factual paragraphs about antibiotic and growth hormones and asked them to respond whether the statement was believable or unbelievable. It found:
* 61 percent did not believe antibiotics were used only in animals that are sick, susceptible, exposed to illness or showing signs of illness.
* 50 percent did not believe the U.S. government monitors antibiotic resistance and mandates meat can have no antibiotic residue exceeding FDA standards.
* 58 percent did not believe the Food Safety and Inspection Service regularly tests for signs of growth hormone misuse through residue testing of meat and has not found any instances of misuse.
Murphy said consumers' concerns were eased after reading factual paragraphs provided on regulations.
Concerns about antibiotics were eased by 37 percent, with 42 percent of those saying strict guidelines and Food and Drug Administration involvement eased their concerns and 27 percent saying more knowledge eased their concerns.
Concerns about growth hormones were eased by 26 percent, with 21 percent crediting more knowledge, 15 percent crediting a better understanding of guidelines and 15 percent crediting the involvement of government organizations.
"The good news is education is key," said Danette Amstein, a principal with Midan Marketing.
The bad news is the breadth of misinformation about the issues. The meat industry has a lot of work to do, she said.
It is time to stand up for these industry practices and do a much better job of educating consumers, she said.
The industry needs to form alliances to put key messages in front of consumers and get proactive and stay that way. In addition to being proactive, the industry needs to be transparent, passionate and persuasive and engage consumers in dialogue, she said.