PUBLIC PERCEPTION IS BIGGEST HURDLE INDUSTRY FACES

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 1

Before I even begin this article I want to qualify the fact that a certain amount of what you will read here is my opinion. I generally compile these articles based on referenced facts or extensive experience as related to a given topic. But in this case, given the circumstances as they are in our world today, I thought I might weigh in on a subject that seems, in some cases, to be going unchecked and that our efforts in agriculture are either insufficient or unheeded. I will, however, base whatever opinions expressed here on verifiable facts and figures despite the fact that it seems that much of our current news and information is based on “blogs” that are purely the comments and insights of a variety of individuals.

It seems that the beef industry as well as all of food animal production and meat as a dietary component is constantly under fire. It seems that seldom does a week go by that we don't hear another story of a video that has been posted depicting the awful conditions in which farm animals are raised. Or another celebrity makes a statement about the healthfulness of a meat-free diet. Or how meat products are contaminated by a variety of pathogens that are certain to make us all sick or even kill us. Or that the methods or products used to insure the safety of food or to extend shelf life are bound to give us all cancer. It seems that the negative press never stops.

Seldom do we see an article that discusses the fact that animals produced in poor conditions are also unproductive. Given the narrow profit margins in most of production agriculture, farmers and ranchers can't afford to raise animals in stressful, unhealthy conditions. While organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States or Mercy for Animals crank out yet another video showing all the atrocities of animal agriculture, nowhere do we see anything about the research that reports how the productivity of a dairy cow is related to her being comfortable (Krawczel and Grant, National Mastitis Council Conference Proceedings, 2009) and that she requires a minimum amount of hours of “down time” where she is laying down and resting (Villarroel and Krahn, American Association of Bovine Practitioners Conference, 2011). Why would these groups want to bother with the facts? It is truly unfortunate that a tool as powerful as the internet or the news media in general is used so irresponsibly. It is obvious that it is perfectly fine to perpetrate lies in an effort to promote one's agenda regardless of how misguided or uninformed.

As members of animal agriculture one of our main focal points must be that we are in the FOOD business. And not only that, a very important part of the food business, that of producing high quality protein which is absolutely critical to the diet of every man, woman and child. It is also a critical source of essential fatty acids and minerals. Vegetarian diets are fine if you get into that sort of thing but the good Lord created man to be an omnivore, i.e. to eat meat and plants for a BALANCED diet. The elimination of all of a given food type compromises the diet. It is commonly stated how good a vegetarian diet is WITH proper planning and WITH supplementation. Am I the only one that sees the contradiction here? As an industry, one of our primary functions must be the ongoing promotion and dissemination of accurate information related to the value of meat as an important dietary component. Unfortunately, this is where we fall terribly short. To give you an example, as I was writing this article, to test how well meat in our diets is portrayed on the internet, I did a simple Google search. I searched the term “meat protein in diet.” Of the ten citations that showed up on the first page, only one was related to the inclusion of meat in the diet. All the rest were promoting, in some fashion, the value of a vegetarian diet and how meat was unnecessary to meet our protein needs.

This, in fact, may be the beef and meat industries single biggest challenge: to provide accurate information to the consumer so that they are informed about:

1) How animals are raised and managed

2) How meat really is produced

3) The healthfulness of meat products

4) The value in our diets

5) Steps taken to keep meat products safe from the farm to the plate.

While this is a short list, it contains a mountain of information, especially when we consider how little the current population understands about any of these issues. The next thing that must be considered is how far from the farm the average consumer really is. Once the US was largely a rural society and virtually everyone had at least some understanding of where their milk and meat came from, as well as the rest of their food. Today this is not the case.

As producers, we have to remember several things:

1) The percentage of the US population involved in agricultural production is exceedingly small, somewhere around two percent. This is ALL of agriculture so if you narrow this down to those involved in food animal production (beef and dairy cattle, sheep and goats, hogs, poultry, aquatic species) this number is substantially lower.

2) The typical consumer is now many generations removed from production agriculture and this gap grows with each successive generation.

3) The media is a powerful force in this process. In many cases they are unwitting accomplices to groups with extreme animal rights agendas, vegetarian and vegan groups that are largely or totally anti-meat consumption. Many of these groups, as mentioned before, will resort to any and all means of promoting their agenda. Truth and accuracy are inconsequential. There message is based on several recurring themes:

a. Farming of animals is cruel

b. Harvesting and processing is inhumane

c. Meat products are unhealthy

d. Vegan diets are superior

e. We should eliminate all animal products from our lives.

f. There is a perception that “normal” or “typical” food production is not safe (preservatives, processing chemicals, presence of pathogenic organisms, etc.).

4) Because of human nature, consumers will give attention to stories about animal cruelty, abhorrent handling conditions in a meat processing facility, negative effects of eating meat products, etc. These types of stories are sensational and invoke the same curiosity as seen in drivers slowing down on the interstate to look at a wreck. Stories about people caring for their livestock and some of the exceptional technologies used in processing facilities just aren't that interesting.

The whole point is that the food/meat industry is a relatively small group, with a large deck stack against them (us) and has a very difficult time shouting over the din of all those groups that would prefer that we just went away.

Obviously, there are a lot of issues here. Effective communication to the consuming public is our greatest challenge because discussing effective management practices that show animals being treated well and humanely is not as sensational and doesn't sell as many papers or magazines as the ones which have depicted apparent atrocities on the farm. The media and the groups pushing the anti-animal production agendas also don't seem particularly concerned with conveying an accurate message since, again, it's not as sensational nor does it advance the cause as effectively.

Another challenge we have is that the perceptions that we have, as compared to the consuming public is very different. This perception is related to the statements earlier that with each passing generation our culture gets farther away from the farm. The fact of the matter is that there are parts of animal production and subsequent “harvest” (the politically correct term for slaughter and processing) that are not pretty. Everyone enjoys seeing a herd of cows on a green hillside pasture in spring. The sight of a pen of feedlot steers knee-deep in mud is not as appealing but it is a fact of life. Few individuals have seen the inside of a 500 foot long broiler house. The thought of keeping sows in crates where their movements are restricted is frowned upon. Little thought given to what happens to a new-born piglet if it is laid on by its 300 lb dam. The perception issues at hand are that in many cases the consuming public simply has no concept of what is required to produce animals to produce the meat they want for their morning bacon or burger at Jack in the Box or the grilled chicken breast they'll have for dinner tonight. In most cases they really don't want to think about it so they don't. But while they are having dinner with the TV on and the news story comes on about the mistreatment of dairy calves in Ohio or Texas or the latest meat recall because a batch was discovered to be contaminated with e. coli, it is forced into their vision and thought process and they may see it every time they turn on the news or check Facebook or open their computer to their CNN news network homepage. For several days these stories are drilled into them and the images don't readily go away.

The other thing is that, unfortunately, these folks do not have the first idea of what it takes to feed our country, let alone the world. The current population of the United States is about 313 million people. The vast majority of these live in an urban or suburban setting and their part of the food chain is going down to the local grocery and buying whatever they need. They (we for that matter) take for granted what is required for all those shelves in your local Walmart to remain full, ALL THE TIME. Very few of us have even the remotest idea of what it is like to walk into our favorite local grocery store only to find the shelves and meat case empty. The supply chain from the store all the way back to the point of origin is phenomenal. And again, the vast majority of consumers haven't the first clue of everything that has to come together to make sure that the shelves of your local Walmart or Costco or King Souper or Randall's or other food store as well as countless other stores across the country remain fully stocked, all the time. And here as through the majority of this article I'm referring the philosophical or logistical considerations. We've not even begun to begin a discussion of the economics. But we'll get there.

So What Is the Answer?

First we have to understand what we are really talking about. The first thing is to get a grasp on the big picture of animal agriculture and meat production. Not too many of us fully grasp this in its entirety. We understand the cow-calf operation we run or the stocker cattle we buy and sell or perhaps the feedyard we manage. But few of us understand the magnitude of the industry and the ongoing battles that must be fought if we are to remain a part of our food supply. This means we have to understand the issues. We have to understand that bad things do happen and that like any industry we will have those that will damage the image we are working so hard to improve. Those folks need to clean up their act or they need to go do something else (or they can go to jail as have some). We need to understand what it takes to produce a clean food supply and that like everything there are limits here as well. We can't control how our products are handled once they leave our possession and that the consumer has to be educated in such a manner that it will mean something to them the next time they get ready to prepare dinner.

Second we have to accept the fact that you can't reason with unreasonable people. We all know someone who “knows what they know and that's all they are willing to know.” You can't teach them because what you are asking them to accept goes against THEIR conventional wisdom. This is where experience and perception come in. Our desire is for them to come over to our way of thinking. Unfortunately, their desire is for you come over their way of thinking. In many cases this will probably be a deadlock.

Conclusions

From this it can be concluded that the single biggest hurdle the beef industry may face is that of public perception and communicating with that public. This hurdle is made all the higher and wider by the “noise” created by the people and groups that would have meat consumption become a thing of the past for a variety of reasons. In the next part of this series we'll start a discussion of some specifics that have been raised of late and need to be addressed including repeated accusations of animal mishandling and meat processing and the so-called “pink slime.” And the hits just keep on comin'!

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by email at sblez@verizon.net. For more information please visit www.facebook/reveillelivestockconcepts.







Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!