Perdue Gets Ahead of the Story

Perdue Foods CEO Jim Perdue employed a classic media strategy in announcing that his company was halting the use of human antibiotics in 95% of its chickens and 100% of its egg hatcheries:  He simply changed the conversation.

No one is more familiar than Jim Perdue with the raging debate over how the use of antibiotics in livestock is not only making all of us sicker, it’s spawning so-called “superbugs” that are increasingly drug-resistant.  He’s no doubt still smarting from that 2008 documentary “Food Inc.” in which rogue Perdue contractors pulled back the veil of secrecy that for so long has hidden the ugly truth about how our chickens are really raised.

Couple this with a growing grassroots (pardon the pun) movement of informed consumers increasingly eschewing corporate food labels in favor of small, local, and natural, and you can understand how he could see the writing was on the wall for the future of his $6 billion a year empire.

So, as he proudly crowed this week to USA Today, Jim Perdue said “We listen to consumers.”

Listen, yes.  Do what they ask, not necessarily.  Actually raising chickens humanely would have been way too big of a financial hit.

So what did he do?  He tweaked his operating procedures slightly, and CHANGED THE CONVERSATION.


The conversation was about the use of antibiotics in livestock.  Perdue, however, made it about human antibiotics versus animal antibiotics.  What’s the difference?  Scientifically, there really is no difference at all.  But Perdue’s message to the media is that in switching away from “human” antibiotics, this will solve the crisis of not enough antibiotics to treat diseases in humans.

Is there such an antibiotic shortage crisis?  Actually, no.  The crisis is that the use of antibiotics in farm animals is creating superbugs and making us all sicker.  But that didn’t stop Perdue from pointing us away from the real problem (his inhumane factory farms are making animals so sick that they need to be drugged up from cradle to grave to prevent their meat from being diseased) to his “solution” to a non-existent crisis.

And it worked beautifully.  A distracted media has largely missed the distinction that Perdue will still be using animal antibiotics (which are essentially the same thing), and an even more distracted public will think they’re making a healthy choice when they pull a Purdue chicken out of the supermarket cooler with the words “no human antibiotics used” plastered across the label.

It’s a brilliant use of strategic messaging and crisis communications.

Unfortunately, it’s being used against consumers.

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