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.