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Squashing Superbugs: John Ghingo Re-ignites Conversation

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On June 3, John Ghingo, Applegate’s president spoke to Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg about the looming global health crisis of antibiotic resistance. You can watch highlights of the interview or read some, edited for clarity, below. You can also join us in the fight against superbugs by signing our pledge and joining our email list for updates on antibiotic resistance news and policy actions.

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Nierenberg: Misuse and overuse of antibiotics is such a huge issue and it's really happening around the globe. I’m wondering if you can set the stage.

Ghingo: If you take a step back and just really think about the basic principle here: Antibiotics are a super, super drug, a precious resource that is accessible, affordable and cures all types of infections. If you go back and think strep throat, it used to be deadly. An ear infection could kill. We have these antibiotics, which are so wonderful, and yet we're indiscriminately using them in a way where it jeopardizes their effectiveness just to save a few pennies per pound on meat.

It reminds me of one of the things our founder Applegate's Steven McDonnell used to say: Can you imagine coming down for breakfast and sprinkling some antibiotics on cereal for your kids every day just to make sure they don't get sick? You would never do that. But yet that's what we're doing with our animals. And it's creating this risk with really deadly consequences.

That's the context. And it's sort of easy to say, well, stop using them. But it's not completely simple because it's the system that's sick--not the animals. We're using antibiotics to treat a sick system: one without sufficient space and one without healthy and proper conditions for the animals. We're using antibiotics as a cure all for that sick system.

Nierenberg: Absolutely. Nothing is more important, especially coming out of the pandemic and realizing that sort of the second pandemic has been happening for years. So are we at a point of no return or can we do something now to make this the moment, the year, the decade where we can really turn this around?

Ghingo: While we've seen some troubling signs in the trends, I in no way have lost hope. I do believe that we can turn the tide, and there are three reasons why.

The first is consumers. I'm a big believer in consumer choice. And more and more consumers are waking up to our food system, the fragility of our food system. They want to understand more about our food system, where their food is coming from, and that’s especially true with younger consumers.

The second is industry. I also believe in the power of industry and companies to drive change. I'm fortunate to work for a company that has a track record of driving some of that change. When Applegate first got into meat raised without antibiotics movement, it was virtually non-existent. Today, it's over a three billion dollar category growing pretty quickly. That is one sign. We also had a handful of farms in the beginning. We now work with over 4,000 farmers who are producing without antibiotics. And we've also seen great progress in the poultry industry with some of the larger companies in terms of removal of antibiotics. So I believe in that power of industry as the second hope.

And the third piece is government, which I hope can help us here, drive some change. Not only through regulations, but even just bringing more transparency to reporting, tracking the flow and usage of antibiotics. If we look at some of the examples in Europe, whether it's Denmark or Netherlands, a lot of the success in Europe in reducing reliance on antibiotics started with data and transparency.

So I have a lot of hope that we can turn the tide. But it's going to be consumer choice. It's going to be industry, and hopefully it will be government coming together.

Nierenberg: How can companies take a really active role in disrupting this situation?

Ghingo: If I think about disruptive examples, there's usually two sides to it. One is the moment and one is the disruptive act. And if I think about the moment where we are right now-- beginning to emerge from this global pandemic--I couldn't imagine a better moment to tackle this issue, which is the next collective human health crisis. It's the right moment.

How do we actually disrupt? To me, the question isn't how do we just stop using antibiotics quickly. The question is: how do we go for more holistic farming practices? Because that's really at the root of what we need to do, which is get to better ways of farming. And those better ways of farming in total will be disruptive.

It's not an easy change, but it is a major change. And it'll get us to practices that actually won't just remove antibiotics, but will also get us back to animals being raised in more humane, better, more natural conditions. It'll get us to healthier soil with animal impact on land. It'll get us to healthier, more regenerative systems, more organic based systems. These are the types of holistic systems that will actually disrupt the way we do things and the impact will be broad beyond antibiotics.

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Changing The Meat We Eat®: Natural & Organic - No antibiotics, growth hormones, artificial ingredients or chemical nitrites - Humanely Raised - Gluten Free

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