Commentary: Clueless consumers

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What’s the biggest contemporary problem for livestock producers?

That’s easy—if, like me, you’re an outsider looking in, that is.

The No. 1 problem is that even the most articulate producers spend way too much time talking to each other, or to scientists, veterinarians, policymakers and members of the trade media. The majority of those professionals have an understanding of the dynamic and the economics of livestock production; many, in fact, are more than equipped to engage in protracted, technical discussions about inside-the-industry issues that when “translated” to a lay audience are ripe for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Take the case of one Jeremy Ranck, a 30-year-old Pennsylvania hog farmer and subject of an insightful profile in the Des Moines Register as World Pork Expo gets underway in Iowa’s capital this weekend.

“Any farm, that’s your life, that’s your passion,” Ranck was quoted as saying. “We do everything we can to have the best production in crops, the best production in hogs. It is very frustrating when there are activist groups and social media blitzes of blatant lies.”

That quote could probably have come from any of thousands of producers across the country, and indeed in its essence, Ranck’s observation informs a whole lot of conversation among attendees at virtually any industry trade show or conference I’ve ever attended.

That’s the problem: When producers try to state what they believe to be the obvious advantages of modern production, consumers come away with a far different interpretation—they buy the lies.

Just don’t do it

Nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than in debates over the use of antibiotics.

For more than a decade now, consumer groups and industry critics have joined forces with an activist segment of the scientific community to decry what they deem the “overuse” of antibiotics in animal agriculture, blaming it (and the producers who have embraced such inputs) as the culprit in the rising incidence of antibiotic-resistant microbial pathogens that are plaguing human medicine.

Here’s the problem: The concepts of dosage, specificity and prophylaxis escape 99.99% of the public when they happen upon media coverage of the antibiotics issue. To most people, the activist mantra—an anti-Nike slogan that boils down to “Just stop it”—makes perfect sense.

People fail to recognize that if one of their children develops an infection, they’re demanding that their doctor prescribe antibiotics—the connection with veterinary medicine never occurs to them.

Likewise, arguments that the industry’s well-intentioned spokespeople make about sub-therapeutic usage keeping animal healthier, and thus limiting the need for more powerful antibiotics (the kinds that cause resistance problems), simply don’t resonate with shoppers pushing their carts through the local supermarket.

There was a great example of that in the newspaper article. Ranck described how he and his dad (who also raises pigs) removed an old barn two years ago and replaced it with a new $500,000 steel-framed facility. The investment resulted in more uniform growth rates, fewer bouts of illness and death among the animals, and thus a sharp drop in overall antibiotic use.

If you’re a producer, your head’s nodding. Of course—that’s why the industry’s gone to controlled housing and more sophisticated management, you’re saying to yourself—as if that settles any arguments.

But what do consumers think when they read about that anecdote? That a scenic old barn—the kind we love to spot on our infrequent drives through “the countryside”—was torn down, and now the poor pigs are trapped in a steel-and-concrete prison, never seeing the light of day and spending their waking hours crammed into tiny, sterile pens.

The notion that producers are “pumping pigs full of antibiotics” because they’re crammed into crowded, unhealthy housing actually makes a lot of sense—if you’ve never been on a farm, never seen the inside of a modern hog barn and don’t have a clue what animal husbandry’s all about.

Which describes pretty much 9 out of every 10 Americans.

The solution is twofold: One, open up those barns. Show people what goes on inside and the clean, sanitary environment in which pigs are raised. Yes, that involves issues of biosecurity, but under controlled conditions, the precautions that have to be taken before people enter a barn help underscore, not undermine, the message that modern housing isn’t dark and dirty at all.

And two, more farmers and producers need to speak up, along with fewer scientist and spokespeople. Industry experts are important voices in policymaking debates, but rarely can such folks communicate effectively with people who have basically zero technical or scientific education.

What the industry needs is more messaging that reflects how ad agencies handle copy: Aim it at seven-year olds, and you’ll be right on target.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.



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Gary Richards    
Arkansas  |  June, 13, 2013 at 11:33 AM

The TV preachers told George W to talk to "them" as you would to a six year old. It worked for G.W. and certainly for the TV preachers. It should work for the industry.

L. Ballentine    
Canada  |  June, 13, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Better yet, show the public those scenic red barns, which through no fault of their own are usually dark and dank, and less than ideal when it comes to management and hygiene.

Gary Sz    
Indiana  |  June, 13, 2013 at 12:08 PM

I'm in agreement on your approach and notice you guys whine too much about the need to do such things. Just remember, the same thing is being done for you in areas where you need assistance. Perhaps you know how to maximize your investment portfolio, but most people don't (and most would struggle to identify an investment portfolio), so those in the know have to keep the messages simple in order to be understood and keep attention. It's too bad it has to be done for a subject as basic as food, but as you know and most others don't, it's much more complex than just going to the market and ringing up a purchase.

Jeremy    
Kansas  |  June, 13, 2013 at 12:41 PM

I understand where you're coming from when you discuss the benefits of sub-therapeutic benefits in relation to decreasing the necessity of more powerful antibiotics. However, that's a short run argument. In the long run, as resistance grows to the weaker sub-therapeutics, stronger and stronger ones are required to have the same effect. That's not something that's lost on discerning consumers, and it's definitely not lost on legislators and the FDA. Also, I don't think providing a lung full of pig farm to squeemish consumers is going to have the desired effect. When folks sink into a pork tenderloin, they don't want to recall the time they walked past the manure lagoon.

Rick    
June, 14, 2013 at 06:55 AM

Jeremy, I agree. But maybe the question is: "why do consumers prefer to believe the activists rather than the industry spokepeason?" Did you ever notice how most food ads feature that "old fashion red barn"? Consumers are constantly getting a mixed message re-enforced. The marketers want people to think that food comes from that red barn. They don't really want them to know the truth. Also you need to be very careful about "talking down" to consumers. Some of them are more sophisticated than you think. Try to fool them and they will become even more confused and sceptical than now. Trust is important.

Jeremy    
Kansas  |  June, 14, 2013 at 08:11 AM

Rick, The answer to your question lies in the degree to which the spokesperson is impartial. Is tobacco addictive? The industry spokespeople say no. They say no because they have a financial interest in the public's perception. Why would anyone take someone at their word when there is money changing hands? Do you believe every word snake oil salesmen speak to you? Of course not. You look to an impartial source that could back up the claims of the industry spokespeople. Who are the impartial sources backing the sub-therapeutic antibiotic use? Consumers follow the money. Industry spokespeople are the LEAST trustworthy sources of information.

Jeremy    
Kansas  |  June, 14, 2013 at 08:11 AM

Rick, The answer to your question lies in the degree to which the spokesperson is impartial. Is tobacco addictive? The industry spokespeople say no. They say no because they have a financial interest in the public's perception. Why would anyone take someone at their word when there is money changing hands? Do you believe every word snake oil salesmen speak to you? Of course not. You look to an impartial source that could back up the claims of the industry spokespeople. Who are the impartial sources backing the sub-therapeutic antibiotic use? Consumers follow the money. Industry spokespeople are the LEAST trustworthy sources of information.

shaun evertson    
nebraska  |  June, 14, 2013 at 09:16 AM

I give dozens of ranch tours each year and have hosted non-ag folks from nearly every state and from Europe and Asia. I've never had a visitor who couldn't or wouldn't understand my explanations regarding common "bad press" ranching practices such as therapeutic and prophylactic AB use, branding, castrating, confined feeding, etc. Nearly all come with questions about these things and while I'm sure I don't convince each one to "see the light" of my "wisdom," they’ve all been genuinely interested with a desire to understand farming, ranching and food production. Most if not all are concerned about food safety, animal welfare and conservation issues, but most also scoff at the over-the-top reports they get from the media and from rabid activists. I get the sense that non-ag folks are no more “programmable” than I am, and that they resent being spun and manipulated as much as I do. I don’t know if there’s any way to eliminate or overcome widespread misinformation, but I do believe that actual boots-on-the-ground farm/ranch visits are extremely effective.

Wm    
South Dakota  |  June, 14, 2013 at 09:40 AM

Jeremy said: "I don't think providing a lung full of pig farm to squeemish consumers is going to have the desired effect." A recent CIG "odor free" manure demonstration proved that we can actually raise pigs "odor and pathogen free." Go here for an interesting YouTube example. Uploaded on Feb 22, 2012 See happy pigs in a warm, clean, odor-free pign barn on a winters day in South Dakota. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DX_MifDvjLk

Son-of-Butch    
mn  |  June, 15, 2013 at 12:41 PM

The Carter administration commissioned the FDA to research antibiotic links...45 years later they were still too busy cashing their checks to have ever completed a study and report back on the findings.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  June, 18, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Jeremy is partially right. Surveys do indeed confirm that industry sources (in any industry) are considered to be biased by most people. But part of the problem is exactly what he referenced: industry spokespeople too often defend indefensible faults -- like saying tobacco won't really harm you. The better way to go is acknowledging an industry's challenges honestly -- for starters -- and having plausible improvements teed up and, if possible, underway. Then there's at least a chance that some education can begin to take place, in this case, that consumers begin to distinguish between sub-therapeutic doses of common, first-generation antibiotics and the far less frequent use of potent veterinary medications needed for short-term acute disease treatment. The former regimen is unique to farm animals; the latter is no different from human medical treatment. Once that distinction can be broadly accepted (and I'm not saying it's going to be easy), then the dialogue can focus on the issue of resistance, AND more importantly, the consequences of prohibiting prophylactic use of low-level antibiotics (greater reliance on more potent drugs with an even greater risk of developing resistant pathogens that compromise human health). Staying the course by claiming that farmers aren't at fault and agricultural antibiotic use won't hurt you isn't -- and never will be -- successful.

maxine    
SD  |  June, 18, 2013 at 05:19 PM

First, most farms or ranches are the home of those families, who also eat some of the food they produce, therefore, we have a vested interest in keeping our land and the food we produce safe and free of any antibiotics of chemicals. Beef (the product we produce, therefore know most about) cannot contain any residues of anything with possible exception of marinades (which must be on the label) and contains far less hormones than do some veggies. It would be ideal to have farmers and ranchers as our spokespeople....yet......how many times have 'reporters' with an agenda interviewed farmers and twisted and manipulated their answers to make it appear they WERE raising animals that were not safe for consumption, or at the least, left an impression of deception and either ignorance or willful hiding of facts by those farmers and ranchers? That is what many in agricultre fear, and why many want at least some educated, tough spokespeople familiar with such tactics, and very knowlegeable about a broad spectrum of our complex business of growing food.


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