Can you still eat chicken without detecting something of a bitter aftertaste? A great deal of fuss was made about ESBL bacteria in the Netherlands during this past week. Various media featured reports that much of the chicken sold in Dutch shops is contaminated with this type of bacteria. It is therefore highly likely that eating chicken will lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, according to the reports. The one expert after the other was persuaded to comment on the matter: from the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (VWA), to various professors and the Royal Netherlands Veterinary Association (KNMvD). Quite remarkably, however, the vast majority of the reports lack any comment by those actually at the centre of the story: the poultry sector itself.
Oh indeed, much was said on their behalf, but by other interested parties. An article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad quoted a professor as stating that the sector itself is in the process of drawing up guidelines, but that it is doing so ‘rather slowly’. So how does this indirect perspective portray the poultry farmers in the media? As a bunch of yokels, who are in no hurry, and who have no qualms about injecting their livestock with antibiotics, as it is apparently the cheapest means of keeping them ‘healthy’ until such time as their slaughter might yield the most favourable price. This only serves to promote the perception among the public at large that poultry farmers couldn’t give a monkey’s about either animal welfare or human health, aren’t prepared to cooperate with other parties in seeking a solution, and are only in it for their own financial gain.
Is this an accurate picture, however? My own experiences suggest very much the contrary. Having grown up among the pastures in the green heart of the Netherlands myself, I know that farmers and livestock breeders in general care a great deal about both their livestock and their vocation. A sick animal genuinely concerns a true farmer. He may not show it directly though, as farmers tend to be rather reticent characters. Most of them are nevertheless very hard workers. In this case, however, it essential that they enter into considered dialogue. After all, other parties have proven all too willing to cackle away like headless chickens in the poultry farmers’ silence. This leaves us with a picture which is incomplete and one-sided, to say the least. Can’t the poultry farmers just shrug it off and continue to labour away industriously, though? They would be well advised not to do so, as this misconstrued impression might cause the poultry farmers to lose both the sympathy and confidence of the Dutch consumer, which would ultimately affect their business.
According to the website of the Dutch Poultry Farmers’ Union (NVP), which represents the sector’s interests, they are certainly willing to enter into dialogue. ‘The NVP is keen to provide interested parties with more detailed information,’ I read. Their opinion has nevertheless been hardly voiced in the media. The will certainly appears to be there, so is the way perhaps missing?
Poultry sector, please provide openness and context, explain the measures that you have taken, why and how you use antibiotics, and what alternatives are available and their consequences. Do not place your credibility among the general public at stake, but adopt a proactive approach to maintaining consumer confidence. Get your act together, and let’s hear your side of the story. After all, the future of your businesses is at issue here, as well as that of ‘our’ chicken!