In the culmination to a long and occasionally embarrassing struggle with both USDA and animal activists, a New Mexico meat plant received federal approval this week to begin operations as a horse meat plant.
Roswell, N.M.-based Valley Meat Co., after compliance with multiple federal requirements, and after filing a lawsuit charging that USDA was dragging its feet on approval, was notified that the department is indeed legally compelled to assign meat inspectors to the plant, allowing Valley Meat to become the first packing plant allowed to slaughter horses since Congress banned such operations in 2006.
The company quickly issued a statement touting its victory.
“Today, Valley Meat Company received its Grant of Inspection from USDA FSIS to process equine animals at its Roswell facility. Valley will now begin final preparation to hire 40 to 100 employees over the coming weeks and months so that they may go to work providing a humanely harvested, safe, legally compliant product to the world markets. Valley looks forward to working cooperatively with USDA FSIS to ensure that all applicable laws and regulations are followed.”
Let me help with that statement.
First of all, stop bragging about “looking forward” to working with the government to “ensure that all laws are followed.” No, no, no.
You’re in the meat business. You already know what the laws are—or at least you should. Your goal isn’t to “partner” with some agency to see if, together, the two of you can find a way to follow the rules. C’mon. That’s like saying, “I just signed a lease on a brand new car, and now I’m looking forward to working cooperatively with law enforcement to ensure that all applicable traffic laws are followed.”
Yes, I understand that if you’re running a business, creating a cooperative relationship with a regulatory agency is vastly preferable to the alternative. However, as far as the public is concerned—and PR statements are ultimately designed for public consumption—the USDA inspector isn’t stationed in the plant to explore cooperative relationships with management, but to make sure the final food product being produced is safe and sanitary.
A more effective way to communicate an organization’s eagerness to be a good, law-abiding corporate citizen is to make the point that internal, company-created rules exceed the minimum standards that government imposes.
The idea is that USDA sets the floor in terms of safety; the company aims for the ceiling. To extend the analogy, obeying the speed limit isn’t something a trucking company should be boasting about. That’s a given. Their message should be that they’re dedicated to operating their vehicles with the utmost safety, to driving defensively at all times and to sharing the road with motorists in a courteous, respectful manner that transcends the traffic laws.
Likewise, a meat company needs to be dedicated to providing consumers with the utmost in safety, quality, and wholesomeness, a process that starts—not ends—with regulatory compliance.
Wooing the opponents
Second, if there is any “cooperation” to be referenced in a news release, it should be directed at the groups or segments of the public who have an issue with the company’s operations—or in this case, its very existence.
Instead of “reaching out” to USDA—as if that’s even an option—how about reaching out to the animal rights groups and horse-loving activists to explore ways to “work cooperatively” together on animal handling and to address other issues of concern—such as the (alleged) presence of veterinary drug residues?
Sure, that’s not likely to happen, but corporate statements aren’tsupposed to be about communicating actual items on the corporate “to do” list. They’re about positioning the company’s core values, its culture, if you will, in terms that potential customers, consumers and citizens in general can understand and appreciate.
Instead of expressing a commitment to work with USDA, how about a commitment to work collaboratively with your opponents?
There’s probably zero chance that equine activists would ever break bread with the owners of a horse slaughter plant, of course, but as far as the public’s concerned, the outreach itself makes the company look like the good guy.
In the end, all corporate communications are about all the good things to which the firm is committed.
And looking forward to obeying the law isn’t on that list.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.