Panera and Chipotle not the only ones marketing ‘antibiotic-free’

EARLIER this summer, my friends in agriculture got their collective knickers in a twist when one of my favorite sandwich shops and bakeries went rogue with its advertising. Promoting a line of chicken products under the “EZ Chicken” banner, the company specifically touted the “antibiotic free” nature of its products, and sort of implied that farmers who use antibiotics in food animal production are lazy.

Naturally, the marketing campaign triggered a social media backlash from the Heartland.

Outrage flowed through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, as a couple of very active bloggers took the cause to the masses, demanding Panera take back the more inflammatory pieces of its marketing campaign, which it did, with a token apology via its Facebook page.

Panera, of course, is not the first company to earn the ire of rural Americans; Chipotle has made “factory farming” its favorite straw man for years, taking the concept of the straw man literally in its most recent big-budget animated short. The company is well-known for its “natural” ingredients, and for presenting itself as “cultivating a better world” by selling giant $7 burritos.

As with Panera, my friends have long sworn off the world’s largest burrito chain, rightly calling out the company for its hypocrisy in tearing down “big food” while being one of the largest chains in the country. Shucks, I’ve even written about Big Burrito a time or two.

The bottom line, of course, is that all meat consumed by Americans is “antibiotic free” because federal slaughter regulations require animals administered antibiotics to be held from slaughter for a specified withdrawal period, and federal inspectors test and sample meat during the fabrication process to ensure compliance with those regulations. As former USDA food safety official Scott Hurd put it, “it’s all antibiotic free, baby!”

Because of this reality, meat advertised as “antibiotic free” is not only not any healthier for you than “conventionally raised” meat products, you’re likely paying more for what is essentially a product sold via misleading advertising. Because some of us has correctly pointed out that a firm “antibiotic free” stance – like the one adopted by Big Burrito – precludes sick animals from being treated (why would you not treat a sick animal?), earlier this summer Chipotle said it was considering a more flexible stance on one of its biggest selling tactics.

Of course it released its “Scarecrow” video not two months later…

With that background in mind, I want you to consider a radio commercial I heard last week for Culver’s, another one of my favorite restaurant chains. While my friends and social media colleagues were up in arms about the Panera chicken campaign, they were singing the praises of the Wisconsin-based burger and frozen treat dispensary because the company announced it was “thanking farmers” by making a contribution to the National FFA Organization, something I whole-heartedly support.

But wait… didn’t Culver’s also introduce an antibiotic-free chicken campaign, last year? Yep, they sure did. The company’s “all natural” chicken products are “plump and juicy, premium antibiotic-free, certified humane raised.” That’s just about every food-related buzzword other than “organic.”

Culver’s TV commercial, titled “Naturally Delicious,” describes the product, focusing in part on the fact that the chickens are raised without antibiotics, and talks about their “high-quality diet” and the beautiful countryside of the farm on which those animals are raised. The radio commercial, meanwhile, proclaims that “when it’s raised right, it tastes right.”

In other words, animals raised with the benefit of antibiotics (presuming they are used properly) is wrong.

While Culver’s ads may not make the claim that farmers who use antibiotics are lazy, the implication that animals should not be treated with antibiotics is pretty clear, and the chain makes a compelling argument (that’s a pretty TV spot, if you ask me) that we should wantmeat that was produced without the use of antibiotics. How is that different from what Panera was doing?

The window dressing might be a little different, but the bottom line is that both chains are selling a product marketed as “antibiotic free” when the product by law must be free of antibiotic residues in the first place. If we’re going to be pissed off all the time, let’s at least be consistent about it, folks.

I’ve not heard any outrage directed toward Culver’s yet, which leads me to ask: had Panera announced a massive donation to the FFA, would we all still be mad at them? Maybe all Chipotle needs to do is write a big check to their local 4-H club, and we’ll all go back to eating big burritos again (or at least be honest that we’ve been eating them all along and just pretending that we don’t on Facebook).