Meredith: Are we overreacting?

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I had the privilege this week to speak to a group from Georgia comprised of leaders in agriculture.  After I was done with my little schpeal, a very astute gentleman asked me pointedly, “Emily, don’t you just think we’re overreacting?”

It’s a good question—are these questions from consumers, this turmoil about food, and the activist group campaigns against animal ag just a trend that will soon fall by the wayside? Golly, I hope so. Do I think that’s likely? No.

So are we overreacting? I don’t think so.

Granted, I overreact to things probably 20 times a day. From a misplaced article in a reputable publication (Yes, Kansas City Star, I’m looking at you) to an offhanded comment about “meat being pumped full of chemicals” on a television show completely unrelated to agriculture; I huff and puff and storm around my office (or living room, as the case may be) in a complete and utter state of overreaction.

But then I claw my way back from the ledge and realize a few things. First, we as an industry have to separate the legitimate questions from the activist propaganda. Consumers, being at least three generations removed from the farm, have no point of reference for what “good” looks like. What does a properly cared-for animal look like? What does safe, wholesome food look like? What does a reputable farm look like?

Because most consumers have no idea where their food comes from, they have questions. And they’re entitled. Everyone should know as much as they want about something as personal as food. Has the volume of questions about meat, milk and eggs increased over the past several years? Yes.

Ag has been sticking its head in the sand and pretending those legitimate consumer questions don’t exist for too long—and now we’re playing catch up.

There’s a lot of turmoil surrounding food right now: what’s healthy, what’s sustainable, what’s humane, what’s safe. Everyone has a different opinion, and unfortunately, the groups that scream the loudest are the ones that are given the most credence.

For activist groups, consumers’ general lack of knowledge about food, combined with an industry that has historically been “mums the word” about livestock production and animal agriculture have combined to create a perfect storm—and a perfect opportunity—for activists to target consumers and spread fear and misinformation.

Do I think that the majority of the meat-eating public is going to stop making room for protein on their plates? No, but let’s not test the theory!  The truth is American’s don’t need to stop eating meat in order to have the animal agriculture industry feel significant effects from activist group’s campaigns or bad publicity. Just look at all the companies that have agreed to phase out product from producers that use gestation crates (most recently Quiznos).

Or how about the whole “pink slime” debacle (pretty sure all the former workers at BPI’s plants wish that that phrase was never uttered).

Just looking at those two examples—it would seem the industry has, more often than not, under-reacted when issues arise.

Last week, I wrote a blog about Paula Deen’s poor response to some racist comments made during a deposition. Some of you readers wondered what that has to do with pork.

Well, I guess you could argue that Paula Deen has nothing to do with pork (assuming you’re ignoring the Smithfield connection), but that wasn’t the point of the blog. My point was that every business is vulnerable to bad press or scandal.

And the truth is that the animal agriculture industry is especially vulnerable as of late. Your business—and your brand—are only as strong as your weakest link. Keeping that in mind, the animal agriculture industry as a whole is only as strong as our weakest farmer, rancher or producer.

If you think scandals that affect one operation don’t impact the perception of the industry as a whole, you’re kidding yourself. The reputations of every individual cog in the animal-ag wheel affect the reputations of us all (and that being said, every scandal makes it more challenging for national spokespersons, like myself, to proactively discuss agriculture. Don’t worry though—I like a challenge!)

I wasn’t trying to hate on Paula (trust me, I love her show too), but rather, I was trying to show how quickly consumers can turn against you with one false move.

Agriculture is its own worst enemy some days —we can’t be proactive until we stop providing the media—and consumers—fodder to which they can react. And that’s just the hard truth, with no overreaction. 


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Jim    
Ringsted IA  |  July, 18, 2013 at 11:51 PM

Good comments Meredith, I posed that same line of question to John Phipps in Des Moines last Jan. My point was why should I even care what the extremists are say about how we raise livestock. I am currently receiving some of the highest prices for my hogs and I do not see meat-eating public( both domestic and exports) backing away from eating meat. For the last 10 years I have been advocating for my industry and have not seen the consumers change their purchasing decisions when it comes to buying meat products. One positive I can see is that is has created a great opportunity for niche market meat products. When I see the magority of consumers demand pork be raised the way that the extremists think that we should, I will turn my 16000 hogs out to pasture, and raise them like we did 30 years ago. After all we are involved in a consumer driven industry. I hope the consumer understands that they with paying alot more for their meat and also be satisfied that the abundant and save supply that they count on now will be a thing of the past. I belive that we should be talking about the freedom of choice, when it comes to making decisions about what we feed our families.

Maddie    
Brooklyn  |  July, 21, 2013 at 03:10 PM

A few things: - you haven't seen a change in consumer purchases, because the the purchasers are still the parents of families from an aging generation. Old habits die hard, and a 50 year old mother is much less likely to give up meat consumption after a lifetime of doing so, as opposed to her daughter- who is the next generation- and when today's teenagers move out and start cooking for themselves- that's when you are going to see a change. - The younger generation lives online. Their access to information is limitless. They see videos posted by what you call "extremists," and they know what they see is disturbing, and painful for the animals. In their search for explanations from the Ag industry- what they get is "that's not actually cruelty. It's normal. That's how you raise animals. You don't know what you're talking about." But millions of teenage girls don't care if "thumping" piglets is "standard industry practice." It's horrifying to watch. And they would rather eat a field roast sausage than a hot dog because of it. - There has also been an explosion of meatless alternatives lately. Less than a month ago, I saw my local grocery store start carrying companies like Earth Balance, Field Roast, Daiya, Follow Your Heart, Quorn, Gardein, in a small agricultural town. The national chains are carrying more options, making it easier to leave animal products out of your diet, and you will see more vegetarians and vegans because of it. - I would also eliminate the word "extremist" from my vocabulary when talking about people who choose to not eat meat. 1- it's offensive. 2- it's inaccurate. Making choices that align with your moral principles based on the information provided is not "extreme." It's common sense.

maxine    
SD  |  July, 23, 2013 at 05:55 PM

Isn't is somewhat "extremist" to accept as fact any videos posted to turn people against eating animals when they are produced by activists promoting that cause and also pushing for animal RIGHTS as opposed to proper care of animals, as determined by animal behavior specialists? Isn't it a bit "extremist" to insist (whether or not you do, there are some posting on these sites who do) that everyone become a vegetarian and all use of animals for meat, pets, or any other purpose be ended? That is still listed as policy of HSUS and affiliated Animal Rights groups. There is no problem with that desire, only with demands for all people accept and follow the same practices. People who eat meat do not demand that anyone else follow vegan or vegetarian diets. Our diets are our own business. Advocates for a lifestyle should not use false information to persuade, nor should they demand that others change and follow their particular pattern.


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