An interview with Aidan Connolly
We are here with Aidan at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference, and one of his talks is about antibiotic resistance. Is there anything that we can do at this stage to turn the tide?
My talk will cover a lot of the difficulties, first, in understanding antibiotic resistance, which is actually a very complicated subject, and clearly we appreciate that overuse of antibiotics — be it on the part of humans or animals — is part of the issue.
One thing about resistance is that it is actually very difficult to get rid of. The numbers are scary. They are talking about the loss of 10 million people a year. That’s one person every three seconds; by 2050, that will be a greater killer than cancer. Everybody is getting very concerned about what’s coming next.
It’s clear to me animal agriculture is not the problem in this scenario. Nonetheless, we are going to be blamed because we are an easier target and also perhaps because it’s easier to control in animal agriculture than in humans. Is it a big concern? I think it should be; I think we should all be extremely aware of what’s coming next.
In your presentation, you plan to reference a quote where you say this could lead to a collapse of modern medicine. That’s pretty apocalyptic. So where does the burden lie on taking action on this issue?
At this stage, I am not sure we have the ability to say it is someone else’s responsibility. I’m talking from the perspective of farming and agriculture. I think we need to be clear that the legislation coming is going to be very draconian and very severe and is going to come very quickly. It’s not just going to be the U.S.; it’s going to be globally. It’s going to focus particularly on the continuous use of antibiotics in feed.
We already know in the United States from Jan. 1, 2017, that we will no longer be able to use antibiotics without veterinary oversight. Of course, certain countries will implement and enforce to a greater degree than others.
What is coming is very clear and, as the antibiotic issue continues to grow, the focus on it will continue to grow.
You have referenced the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations. What kind of impact do you think that will have, and do you think the U.S. will end up going even further than the 2017 regulations?
A lot depends on what the next election brings, whether it be a Trump administration or Clinton administration. We will have to see how that plays out.
My perspective: I don’t think we are going to see any turning back in the VFD regulations. I think that those will be put in place and will be enforced quite strictly. From there, whether we see further legislation will completely depend upon the next election.
What are some companies or governments that you feel are taking a very positive, proactive approach?
Probably the Danes have been the most leading-edge. They certainly restricted the use of drugs in feed on a continuous basis and they have seen, however, farmers using increasing levels, particularly in the water. However, the government there is also introducing a card system whereby if you abuse drugs, you will get in trouble using a naming and shaming approach — (listing) the top veterinarians and farms by drug usage in Denmark, then visiting those farms and asking them why they are using so much. So I would see them as the most progressive in terms of this legislation.
Other countries are being affected by that as well. In particular, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands are all following suit. I think we have a movement; if you take countries like India and China, they certainly are putting the legislation in place but not necessarily enforcement. I do feel those are going to follow as well.
Now, if a producer wants to make a switch to antibiotic-free production, where do they start? What’s involved?
The first thing is to understand the importance of making the environment as beneficial as possible. I think we think of that from a management point of view, a cleanliness point of view, a well-being point of view, but we also actually need a probiotics/bacterial point of view. Alltech’s principles, which were developed in conjunction with the University of Georgia, are that we can create an environment that can vary and have the right bacteria and the probiotics in that environment. As such, once that animal moves into the environment, they are colonized. If you get that animal off to the right start in the beginning, from then on everything is easier.
Now, the ways to do that are many. You can start by looking at using a probiotic, which we would recommend using on day one. You can look at using things such as acids or acidification of water. That is quite common in pigs and poultry and not so important for cows. So really we’re looking at many different interventions, some nutrition, some management and some in terms of the environment.
In other words, there are options for producers to transition?
Yes, the transition process is something that takes place over a period of time. There is no doubt that when you’re used to killing things, which is what antibiotics do, it’s hard to move to fostering or promoting or to growing. Nonetheless, it’s important to make that switch.
Some initial performance problems may occur. Certainly we have seen situations where people have to pay more attention now to water and how water is being given to their animals and to the feeders. They have to pay more attention to the temperature and management issues in general. The antibiotics often are capable of covering up a multitude of problems that may exist on the farm.
In essence, when you move to antibiotic-free, you need to be more management-rich and move to where management is a core issue. Frankly, that’s something that is good for us and good for our business and it’s good in the longer term.
In the antibiotic-free movement, we have also seen the “prosumer” emerge. Can you tell us a little bit about who the prosumer is and why they are having an impact on agribusiness?
“Prosumers” is a term I would use for positive advocates, for people who make very clear, proactive choices, not just in terms of food but in terms of what they consume. What they are looking for are brands or products that reflect the ethics, standards, aspirations and goals they have in their lives.
The average American spends 8 or 9 percent of their income on food. They want to see animals being treated well and workers on-farm being treated well. They want to think they are doing the right things by the environment. The prosumer is a positive but powerful potential advocate for our business.
I think we also need to see them in terms of the internet. They are a product of the democratization of information on the web. As such, when they have a great piece of information and they believe a company is doing the right thing, they can be very positive and they communicate that widely. Equally, if they feel your company is not doing the right thing, they can turn against you. So the prosumer movement, I think, can be something that can be very positive in particular for producers and farmers to connect directly to consumers, but it also needs to be understood that they have very high standards.
They certainly have a role in crises as well, and one of the things you’re talking about here at ONE is the issue with Chipotle. What kind of an impact do you think that crisis has had on the food industry?
Frankly, I think it has had more of an effect on Chipotle than it has on the food industry. The food industry in the U.S. has done an extraordinary job producing safe food affordably for many years. If you look at the quick-serve restaurants McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Chick-fil-A, these companies have not had an issue like Chipotle has had. Chipotle is obviously pushing the envelope in terms of sourcing organically. They are trying to source from smaller suppliers, and that brings its own issues. When you have as many crises as six in five months, that suggests a more sustained issue they need to address.
The lessons for the food industry, in my view, are that you can’t let up on food safety. It’s always a critical part of what consumers expect and need and should demand.
You mentioned sourcing. Do you think it’s a bit of a wake-up call regarding how the food industry or restaurants in particular source their ingredients?
Again, I’ll just say I think most restaurants and most food organizations — 99 percent — are doing a phenomenal job of working directly with producers to make sure food is as safe as possible. I think that should not be underestimated. Equally, we need to be clear that something being organic or natural is not an excuse for it to be unsafe.
Lastly, what do you think is the outlook for Chipotle? Are they going to recover? What needs to happen in order for them to recover?
When I speak to consumers of Chipotle and include my own daughters within this count, Chipotle still has a very strong image and brand reputation for taste and uniqueness. I think in many ways they re-invented themselves and the category for fast Mexican food. I think that’s something very powerful. They have put in place the actions to recover their reputation, but I would certainly say they cannot afford another mistake.