I had the privilege last summer to speak to a group from Georgia comprised of leaders in agriculture. After I was done with my little spiel, a very astute gentleman asked me pointedly, "Emily, don't you just think we're overreacting?"
Good question. Are these questions from consumers, this turmoil about food and the activist group campaigns against animal agriculture 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 to an off-handed 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 the majority of the meateating 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.
Or how about the whole "pink slime" debacle (pretty sure all of the former workers at Beef Products Inc. 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.
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.
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.
Emily Meredith is communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance.