It seems cute, computer-animated visions of the antibiotic-riddled farm are the new weapons in the ongoing food war. Reminiscent of Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” advertising campaign, a new marketing push attempts to drive a wedge between production styles in the minds of consumers where one is painted as good and another as bad. Or in this case, lazy.
<< Photo: A screen capture of Panera Bread's "Drive the Road" animation on its website, featuring EZ Chicken tying antibiotic use to laziness.
Panera Bread’s most recent marketing campaign is making waves in the agricultural community. The current ads promote the bread and sandwich company’s “antibiotic-free” chicken at its restaurants. TV and radio ads—as well as Panera’s online presence—come with the tagline “The road to switching to antibiotic-free isn’t an easy one. But it sure is tasty” and likens the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture to the lazy way out.
This has many ag-minded people angry.
The equation of using antibiotics in food animals to laziness is driven home in the company’s online presence with “EZ Chicken,” a mascot-like chicken who is designed to resemble a generic red and white pill.
An interactive animation on Panera’s site introduces EZ Chicken along the purportedly hard road the company took to get antibiotic-free meats in its restaurants. In the animation, the EZ Chicken character describes himself (herself?) as “in it for the easy” and says, “Sure I was raised with antibiotics; it’s just… easier.”
EZ Chicken—often in a hammock, lawn chair or park bench—is along the road throughout the animation to provide commentary on how hard the antibiotic-free road is and to underscore his lazy persona.
At numerous places throughout the animation, some of the company’s TV ads play, encouraging customers to “live consciously” after discussing its antibiotic-free meat options. Though the focus is on chicken, one of the primary ads also mentions antibiotic-free ham and turkey. There is no mention of beef in the current ads, though one ad mentions they are always looking for ways to “do things better.”
Other features of the animation featuring EZ Chicken make some eyebrow-raising claims, such as the assertion that antibiotic-free meat tastes better and that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. “go into the food people eat.”
While animal agriculture does consume the majority of the antibiotics sold in the U.S.—a fact that stems from the sheer number of animals used and the dosages needed in larger livestock—it is used in the animals which produce the food, not the food itself. This might seem a semantically minor detail but it can be a huge thing in the minds of consumers. As it stands, the wording is blatantly misleading to consumers who likely are not familiar with animal agriculture. The claim does come with a reference to a Pew Health Initiative study, but there is no clarification that U.S. law prohibits antibiotics (i.e. residues) in meat.
In an open letter to the company, Carrie Chestnut Mess—known online as “Dairy Carrie,” a Wisconsin dairy farmer and avid agricultural blogger—informed the company they had lost a customer after she learned about the campaign.
After posting several screenshots and images from the EZ Chicken campaign in her letter, she addressed the element that is ruffling farmer feathers.
“It doesn’t take a genius to understand what you’re really saying here. I mean surely Panera Bread Company’s new campaign isn’t actually calling farmers and ranchers lazy? Oh, I guess you are.”
She then posed another question:
“I used antibiotics to help a sick calf get better last week, my friends the organic farmers had a cow with pneumonia and they gave that cow antibiotics to make her better. They had to sell her, but she lived. Does that mean we are lazy? Is it lazy to take care of our sick animals?” A customer on Facebook asked roughly the same question and a representative from Panera responded, saying that when chickens in the flocks supplying Panera get sick, they are removed, treated with antibiotics, then transferred to conventional flocks.
Others online questioned the tactics of the current marketing campaign and voiced various levels of outrage at the implications and underhanded tactics. Several also informed Panera they would no longer patronize the restaurants because of the campaign.
Some people who commented on Panera’s Facebook page tried to share what livestock producers already know—that all meat is antibiotic-free— along with expressing their outrage. One ex-customer who identified himself as “a graduate of one of the top-ranked Agricultural Sciences programs in the country” said he was appalled at the campaign’s insinuations about farmers and ranchers.
“Farmers are the hardest-working people I have met, yet the campaign calls conventional farmers lazy. Antibiotics are used to treat bacteria-related illnesses and infections and therefore keep our food supply healthy. There is a withdrawal period after antibiotics are administered so that animals with antibiotics in their system cannot enter the food supply. All meat that reaches the consumer is free of antibiotics.
Panera has lost me as a customer!” “Let’s cut through the BS here Panera,” said Mess. “Your new marketing campaign is a horrible idea. If you want to promote something that you think sets you apart from the crowd, this isn’t the way to do it. Biting the hand that very literally feeds you isn’t going to work out well for your company. Slapping some labels on your poultry products isn’t meeting customer demands, it’s creating fear over food and that’s not cool.”
At the time of publishing, representatives managing the Panara Bread Facebook had begun responding individually to complaints about the EZ Chicken campaign. The repeated response was as follows:
“We are so sorry for anyone we have offended with our EZ Chicken posts. We have wonderful, personal relationships with all of the farmers we work with and deeply value the community. We appreciate your feedback and as a result, we are removing all references to EZ Chicken from our Facebook posts.”
No stand-alone apology post had yet been placed on the Panera Facebook page, and at the time of publishing,
the EZ Chicken posts still remained, contrary to the apology’s claims. WLJ’s questions regarding the appearance of EZ Chicken in the website animation and the continuation of the overarching marketing strategy were not answered as of Thursday morning.
Mess’ blog, “The Adventures of Dairy Carrie” can be found at dairycarrie.com or on Facebook at facebook. com/DairyCarrie. The “EZ Chicken” animation can be found at panerabread.com/ liveconsciouslyeatdelicious ly/ then by clicking on the “Drive the road” button. The animation may take a while to load on older computers. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor
Online Update (July 26, 12:10pm MST): Most of the "EZ Chicken" posts have been removed from the Panera Bread Facebook page, but as yet no stand-alone apology or statement has been made regarding the marketing campaign. WLJ's question has not been answered.