People in agriculture have traditionally preferred to keep a low profile. They're sort of isolationists by the mere fact that their businesses are removed from the city or even industrial centers. Pork production's attention to biosecurity - the closed doors and visitor controls - only add to the air of mystery and suspicion among outsiders.
Bring in the packing and processing sectors, which appear even more secretive than producers, and it's no wonder why the public's imagination runs wild.
Earlier this year, I attended an American Meat Institute animal-handling conference. Key to the event was a presentation by Elizabeth Weise, an USA Today writer. Her message was simple: "If you don't tell your story someone else will." And, that's not good.
Last year, she was assigned a story about the meat-packing industry. "A topic I knew virtually nothing about," she admits.
In proceeding with her research, she called numerous industry and academic experts on the subject. "The academics were helpful in a scientific way," Weise notes, "but the industry players were not." She came away with the feeling that industry didn't want to talk about their processes, and they certainly didn't want to see it in the newspaper.
Having run into too many brick walls, she spotted a conference. "There I learned about all the horrors of U.S. animal production," she relays. It was an animal rights' conference. "They were happy to tell me about your industry."
So she listened, then called her editor to outline the exposŽ that she was planning.
Still researching the subject, Weise found Temple Grandin. "That was the turning point in my understanding of the food production and meat industry," she notes.
Grandin not only took the time to talk to Weise, which amounted to several hours, she also lined up a packing plant visit.
Weise called her editor again, but this time outlined an entirely different story.
"The story that I would have written in May was much different than the one I wrote in August," she notes. "Reporters are looking for the real deal. But most of them don't have a lot of time. If it's too difficult to get your story directly from you, they'll find someone who will talk."
Security through obscurity - "that's where the animal industry is today," says Weise. Ignoring an issue as never worked successfully, because people will write their own script and it will always be worse than the reality. She offers a few take-home points for the meat industry from her experience:
You've got to bring consumers into the equation. Tell them what's going on, and that means talking to the press.
If you're doing a good job and are proud of it, you need to talk about it and show it. That means opening up - doing plant or farm tours.
Tell your side of the story. "The anti-meat groups are willing to give us (reporters) the 'facts' any time, day or night," she says.
"It's not only that people wouldn't talk to me, it's that when they did, they were so guarded that they didn't say anything," Weise adds.
Be prepared to spend some time, don't rush the reporter. Shelve the industry jargon; make your points understandable. Also, make it clear that the reporter can call you back if needed.
"Any time you speak openly, there's the risk of being misrepresented," says Weise. If a problem is significant, she suggests calling the reporter's editor to discuss your experience.
Part of the problem is that agricultural folks communicate with consumers the same way that they communicate with each other. Know your audience, speak their language, listen to their concerns. Don't shove your message or your "sound science" down their throats. It won't work.
Let's face it, as an industry we place the blame on consumers and their ignorance about where or how food is produced. But agriculture hasn't done enough to change the public's mindset. For too long, agriculture's low-profile mentality has kept it from stepping forward to tell its story.
Until that changes, someone else will continue to talk for you.