An industry-funded advertising campaign telling mothers not to worry about antibiotics in their meat or milk has been described as “disgusting” by England’s chief medical officer.
The adverts, brought to light by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in June, claimed to be by a “global community” called the “ENOUGH Movement” but were actually funded by animal drugs company Elanco, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. It operates in more than 70 countries and was valued at $14-16 billion last year.
Experts criticised the Elanco-funded campaign, for being sexist and potentially misleading consumers over the risk of antimicrobial resistance. This is a global public health crisis in which infections are becoming immune to the drugs used to treat them, and it is estimated that it will kill 10 million people a year by 2050 if no action is taken.
The adverts said there are were no antibiotic residues in meat or milk, referring to limits set by the EU and the US Department of Agriculture, which carry out inspections to ensure compliance. Experts said this distracts from the issue of giving antibiotics to livestock over the course of their lives, to treat and prevent disease, which fuels antimicrobial resistance but can be done without residues ending up in the meat or milk.
Elanco said the campaign was created by an all-female team and was misunderstood.
England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, a leading voice on antimicrobial resistance globally, echoed critics’ concerns over the adverts on Tuesday November 20. Speaking at the Wellcome Trust’s Call to Action conference in Ghana she said she wanted to “complain very loudly” as the adverts disgusted her “as a woman”.
She continued: “A woman holding a baby and it says ‘if you’re worrying about your chicken it hasn’t got antibiotics in it, sit back have a glass of wine if that’s your thing, and relax’.
“If companies think gender should be treated in this way, it’s time they sit up and think about what they’re doing on gender as well as antibiotics and antimicrobials. […] We have to work with the private sector but please treat half of humanity with respect.”
The adverts were tweeted out and shared on Facebook and Twitter almost every day for two years but they stopped abruptly when the Bureau contacted Elanco in June and published the story.
Julie Lawless, head of global corporate affairs at Elanco, said the campaign ran its full course over the summer but Elanco “continues to share content on on the responsible use of antibiotics and sustainable livestock production on its corporate channels.”
Ms Lawless said she led the all-female team that created the campaign and was "disappointed" it was misunderstood.
She said: “As working mothers and millennials/gen-xer’s, we see a consistent flow of misinformation on the safety of conventional food produced in compliance with regulations. [...]
"A global consumer survey in 2016 found that one third of respondents think that product not labelled ‘antibiotic-free’ contains antibiotics. [….] We believe we have a responsibility at Elanco to understand consumer questions and concerns about antibiotics and sustainable livestock production, so we can help to answer them with scientifically correct information.”
Elanco has an antibiotic stewardship plan in place to help improve responsible antibiotic use, reduce the need for medically-important antibiotics, and replace antibiotics with alternatives, she added.