We all agree. Sort of

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The gap between animal-agriculture and consumer perceptions of food production continues to grow, and we need to communicate better with the general public. Most participants at last week’s Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholder Summit would agree with that statement. But once the discussion shifted to specific messages and methods for addressing that perception gap, the opinions were, well, less in alignment.

The theme for this year’s summit was “Activists at the door: Protecting animals, farms, food and consumer confidence.” The first speaker was Joe Miller, general counsel for Rose Acre Farms, a large egg-production operation. Miller focused largely on “livestock interference” legislation, or the so-called “Ag-Gag” laws passed in eight states and under consideration in others.

As a lawyer, Miller approached the issue from a legal standpoint, stressing the laws protect businesses from spying and clandestine videos, but do not prevent whistle-blowing or reporting of abuse on farms or ranches.

Miller stressed that an expectation of privacy in businesses and some limitations on First Amendment free-speech rights are well established in U.S. law. He also noted that most of the new laws require immediate reporting if employees observe incidents of abuse, while animal-rights groups have withheld clandestine videos for months while gathering more evidence. Thus he says the laws will promote better animal care.

Opponents of these laws maintain that consumers have a right to see how food is produced, but Miller said they really have no such right. He was speaking from a legal perspective, but his statement drew criticism from several later speakers and panel members who insisted whether consumers have a legal right or not, the industry has an obligation to provide the public with information and transparency.

Miller acknowledged agriculture needs to engage consumers in a discussion of animal welfare and other issues of concern in livestock production. His statement that “they don’t need to understand us, we need to understand them” found agreement among the audience and other speakers.

Kathy Keiffer, a broadcaster who produces a food-issue program on the Heritage Radio Network had a different perspective. Saying consumer awareness is the biggest change occurring in the food business, Keiffer maintained that agriculture makes a mistake by responding to consumer concerns in a defensive, crisis mode. We try to shoot down activists while stonewalling, redirecting blame and maintaining a veil of secrecy. She stressed that activists continue to catch animal-abuse offenders in spite of the industry claiming the videos are isolated incidents. The farm-protection bills send the wrong message, she insisted, by indicating farmers and ranchers are unwilling to let the public know how livestock are raised.

Keiffer, who stressed she is a meat lover who supports livestock producers, also said mainstream animal agriculture needs to reconsider its defense of some uses of antibiotics and beta agonists. She cited antibiotic residues in animal waste and antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and said 160 countries have banned the use of ractopamine in livestock. Animal agriculture’s scientific defense of these products, she maintains, send a message that the industry favors profit motive over public safety.

We’re in the midst of a food revolution, Keiffer says. Influential celebrity chefs are embracing new paradigms in raising livestock and progressive food companies are shifting toward more “natural’ production systems. Keiffer acknowledged that specialty meats such as organic or free range cost more, often a lot more, and seemed to suggest there is huge, untapped demand for these products, even at exponentially higher prices, which caused some eyes to roll in the audience.

Many in the audience disagreed with some of the details in Keiffer’s presentation, but accepted her message that stakeholders in animal agriculture need to listen to consumers and embrace change.

Taking more of the middle road, David Westcott, director of digital strategy for APCO Worldwide and a social-media expert joined a panel on using social media. He led off saying legal arguments to defend practices do not play well with consumers. In response to the earlier statement that consumers “do not have a right to know how their food is produced,” he responded “tell that to a mom.”

As for dialog with consumers, he simplified the process by suggesting three steps:

  1. Know who your stakeholders are.
  2. Ask them what they want.
  3. Give it to them.

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Ib Hagsten    
Gladstone, MO, USA  |  May, 06, 2013 at 08:43 AM

When "we changed" from Animal Husbandry departments at universities to Animal SCIENCE departments the publics perception became skeptical ... In my humble, yet accurate opinion. Ib

Katy Keiffer    
New York  |  May, 06, 2013 at 08:47 AM

Hi John thanks for putting up so many of my comments! I just want to clarify my point about people willing to pay more. the fact that there IS a small population willing to fork over 25 bucks a chicken is by no means universal, but simply a belwether for consumer concerns about their food. Notice too, as I pointed out, that even five years ago, there were no "organic" lines of meat available in regular supermarkets, and that is the norm now, and at a higher price point. Those lines are doing very well, and clearly speak to the worries consumers have about meat. Ultimately what I was trying to convey is that the livestock business needs to listen to consumers and tailor their production accordingly, or face the same loss of market share American autos did in failing to address safety concerns. Companies can build consumer trust and brand awareness by speaking directly to those concerns. That's good for the bottom line, for the animals, and for the consumers.

Penna  |  May, 06, 2013 at 08:57 AM

I agree we should be systematically fleecing the handful of self-absorbed customers who pride themselves on possessing more money than brains...as long as we aren't perceived as endorsing the shabby negative attacks these organic/vegan/foodie pricks insist upon hurling against us. The vast majority of the market -- 95% or more -- are good honest average customers with level-headed opinions about food and eating, in spite of all the mental sewage thrown at them by elitist foodies. We would be foolish to neglect any part of the silent contented majority to appease the vocal addled minority.

Illinois  |  May, 06, 2013 at 09:25 AM

Safely secluded in her little radio broadcast echo chamber, talking head Keiffer has come to think a great deal of her own unfounded opinions, a very great deal. Nice that she can afford the overpriced schlock that comprises less than 5% of the food market. The other 95% of the consuming public demand our attention. And they don't choose to be burdened with asinine fears of secrecy, technology, paranoia...

Kentucky  |  May, 06, 2013 at 09:49 AM

Katy Keiffer is spot on. The head-in-the-sand attitude or, even worse, denigration of alternative views, seems to characterize too much of the chatter of this list. Her ideas are neither paranoic nor schlock, but instead quite rational. She, nor those who see things the same way, is not arguing for a dramatic change in meat producers' activities, just transparency. I thought that was what made U.S. democracy (and capitalism) so great...! And there is historical precedent, as she points out with the U.S. auto industry (never mind other examples in British business of over a century ago). Indeed, "know your market" is the essence of successful business practice, and to deny the possibility of a trend upwards is to deny one's own future, and to guarantee demise. Which would be foolish, to be kind.... I assume our corporate leaders and farmers do not want that to occur, so the only wise move is to engage the public before producers are forced to by "socialistic" legislation (like meat inspections and mandated seat belts...).

corrine winne    
May, 06, 2013 at 09:55 AM

I raise cattle and horses i do not support horse slaughter. I no longer trust the cattle industry i once loved being in. I think this huge coverup and ag gag legislation is because you folks are hiding abuse. I am sorry but an industry exposed, is an industry that heals. Your refusal to succumb to exposure shows the USDA may NOT be doing its kob inspecting, reporting and investigating enough. With the introduction of ag gag i think people are Entitled to the truth in our industry. I also hope tbat u understand seeing aggag makes people who correctly breed food a.imals now have a greater response ibility to turn offenders in faster. I will now be watching each step of the way and comply turning in violators immediately. Isnt that what you wanted. Well i think a few times in the paper from their fellow cattlemen turni.g you all all in will clear things up, no activists makes a more legitimate case. So i think at horse shows u see.abuse dial 911 and get lights and sirens and embarrass their dumb as@ im gonna use ag gag constantly! See what aqha and cattle shows think of that!

SD  |  May, 06, 2013 at 09:58 AM

Specifically, what was lost in quality care of animals by the change from Animal Husbandry to Animal Science? Strictly my opinion, but that change indicates to me that we are putting the best of science along with the best of husbandry, or care of our animals. Why fear science? My grandpa loved his animals, but I, at age 72, sure wouldn't want our family to raise animals today with only that love and knowledge from the early 1900's! Ms. Keiffer, your comments are interesting, yet I believe you may be short some facts. Particularly about the people you claim are trying to hide our practices of animal care from the consumer. FIRST, we ARE consumers, too. Most of us buy much of our food at the same type grocery stores you do, tho I've never seen any $25.00 chickens in the natural foods stores I've shopped in. We are commercial cattle ranchers, raising our cattle on native grass pastures for either the first nine months of their lives, at the least. Then they go into our less than 1000 head capacity feedlot for the winter months before going either to a feedlot at about age 12 months where they will eat forages and some grains for about three to four months before being processed into high quality beef, which very likely could qualify as naturally raised meat. They may, or may not be marketed that way. The dams (adult cows) live on our native pastures all their lives, with possibly some supplemental prairie hay and grain cubes fed during the worst of our Dakota winters if we are in a drought so the native grasses are not adequate, or if grass is covered with snow. We are quite leery of being too 'open' due to the fact our family lives here, including our one year old great grandaughter. Some activists are not nice!

Shelly Wasson    
May, 06, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Ridiculous! I am tired of hearing, lies coverup! I am the public, i demand to see! Final answer!your sweet farm sounds so nice lady but its not the whole story. What medications, dewormers, etc. you conviently left that out. The otber day someone they use bute in cattle for food consumption. I demand complete transparency now. I do.t care about activists. I feed a family of 7. I NO longer trust the meat industry, you might feed us all deadly horses already. Pink slime, earth worms, rats, we dont know. This is crazy!

Katy Keiffer    
New York  |  May, 06, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Hi Maxine, Thanks for your comments. My remarks were targeted more toward high volume packers, than those at farm level, though my concerns about overuse of antibiotics for growth promotion certainly might include an operation such as yours. I understand your concerns about 'some" activists, but I have never seen an incident of a family farm coming under attack. What I am saying is that consumers are scared of the drugs that go into our meat supply for numerous and valid reasons. They believe that when a whistle blower is charged with huge fines or sent to jail for taking an unflattering photo or video that something is going very wrong with the system. Lastly, no one ever thought "organic" meat would hit the mainstream but here it is, in virtually every grocery store. And while you haven't seen a 25 dollar chicken yet, they exist, and are sold by dozens of companies as well as at farmers markets across the country. And people are buying them. The landscape of consumer shopping habits is changing and if the meat industry wants to continue to thrive, then animal welfare, antibiotics, and environmental concerns must be addressed.

Ohio  |  May, 07, 2013 at 09:01 AM

Shelly - do you live in China? The USDA Inspection service makes sure that does not happen here. Have you ever visited a packing plant? How about asking to go behind the counter at your grocery store when they are making hamburger. See people like you spread all this false info. How about another direction - the last time a family member had an operation, did you ask be in the operating room and watch? Would they let you in? Probably not because you would not understand and could cause some real risk problems since you have no idea of the risks. Anyway - if you want too talk about the industry - please find out the turth then tell the real truth.

Iowa  |  May, 07, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Kyle is right. The 5% don't care how animals are cared for. They don't care to hear that animals are cared for and treated by industry accepted practices. They don't listen to the vetrinarians that also accept these practices. It is not what they accept. The 95% want meat on the counters - period. They know that the USDA is keeping the food safe and don't care how they are raised, housed, whatever. Shelly, Katy etc are trying to push a topic that only is news to the 5%. The rest of the world could care less as long as there is meat on the shelf to buy. Why not talk about the time when the meat counter is empty and how happy the 95% will be then?

VT  |  May, 07, 2013 at 12:07 PM

Ag-Gag law or not, abuse is not allowed. We pride ourselves in the way we care for our cows, crops, land and community on our family farms. I expect other farmers to do the same. Its disappointing that people argue the issue of AG-Gag laws in the context of how it will infringe on a person or company's free speech or rights. What happened to concern of care for animals?? Shouldn't that be the subject?? Yes, farmers need protection from malicious persons. Yes, "whistleblowers" need to be able to expose inappropriate behavior. Where does the animal fall in this law? Farmer or activist, what is your goal? Protect the animal, yourself or is it another agenda you have??

Shelly Wasson    
May, 10, 2013 at 09:22 AM

The actual USDA reports! You need to read your industry is exposed by the USDA pink slime, rats in the meat plants giving meats contamination, the Bute was in direct violation of USDA inspector stating it could not be used and was butchered a.y ways. One plant had so many rotting dead cows and cow parts they shut it down. One plant had dead chickens evrrywhere. USDA bucko! Are they spreading lies too? Freaking coverup artist, is what u r!

Shelly Wasson    
May, 10, 2013 at 09:26 AM

Yes i went to the teaching hospital where my husband had his open heart surgery. I am an RN i viewed from the teaching room the entire proceedure.

kansas  |  May, 10, 2013 at 12:58 PM

Ms.Keiffer - I listen to Heritage segments regulary, and am regularly annoyed and disappointed. Your network is the NPR of "unbiased" ag reporting. Honesty would demand that each story begin with a disclaimer stating that Heritage is an advocate and promoter for every marketing & ngo entity that has "organic", "natural", "sustainable", "eco-friendly", "animal friendly or other immensely fashionable, memeish sales tagline for its high-priced products. I assume your media education included some mention of how carefully crafted strategies "create" markets and consumers by exploiting celebrity-led, pop-culture life-styles and basic ignorance/fears of "unknowns" - yes? I have no problem seeing business sell $25 fowl to the gullible wealthy, even when Science shows them to be no more nutritious, safe, healthy, friendly or delicious than $6 fowl. I do have a problem when business, with a complicit media, slanders and libels their competitors to accomplish this. If rich, white, Western urbanites want to assuage some guilt they feel or improve their moral self-image by buying products shilled by Mark Bittman - good for them! Just don't encourage or candy-coat the demonization of the producers & means of providing safe, nutritious and bountiful food for the other 6.9 billion humans on earth. THAT is doing evil.

SD  |  May, 10, 2013 at 07:18 PM

Some seem almost to be frothing at the mouth in the zeal to paint cattle producers as either ignorant, or deliberately trying to poison our customers with the meat we produce! I'd suggest some sort of 'chill pill' for you but don't want to risk being accused of pushing drugs! For the record, and you can look it up: there is zero toleance for ANY residues of drugs in beef. Most families who produce enough animals to make a living at it work closely with a licensed veterinarian who designs a health plan and prescibes proper medications if and when necessary. Some of the outrageous scenarios of dead animals lying in a packing plant sounds extremely unrealistic to me as a family who has raised cattle for over 120 years now. But, you did indicate the practice was halted when found (if factual, at all!). Surely not ALL inspectors and others in charge of food safety are 'on the take', are they? Just as (hopefully!) not all writers are hacks with an agenda to push, no matter the facts.

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