An interesting conflux of events happened this week and I have to thank Graeme Goodsir for recognizing it. In a week when the popular press devoted way too much ink to Kate and her Prince William and the rest of their time to the much more important Obama/Osama saga, it’s a story that could have been easily overlooked.  To use a trite old phrase, it was a perfect storm.  It was a good one for the meat business; a bad one for anti-ag and anti meat forces that have largely ignored scientific fact to use emotion and innuendo to further their causes for way to long.

The first ‘weather front’ to cross the horizon was the announcement that four major meat industry associations were going to descend on Washington as a unified group.  It marks a new cooperative beginning in an industry where these groups often worked at cross-purposes.  

The four trade associations are the National Meat Association, Southwestern Meat Association, North American Meat Processors Association and Meat Importers Council of America.  These four associations highlighted their joint visit by hosting an old-fashioned Capitol Hill barbeque Wednesday evening.  As a group, they visited all the Beltway’s power ‘touch points’ to make sure the decision-makers heard and understood their shared concerns.

As if to say, “And another thing!” the second ‘weather front’ came in a new public relations initiative announced Tuesday by the American Meat Science Association and the American Meat Institute.  Their cooperatively issued press release said their newly opened web site, www.MeatMythCrushers.com, was designed to “combat the growing acceptance of myths about meat. ‘Meat MythCrushers,’ they said, was an effort to reconnect Americans to modern food production and to ‘crush’ some of today’s more popular myths associated with meat and poultry.”

The website features twelve videos with AMI’s Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Professional Development, Janet Riley, talking with AMSA academic experts who clearly and concisely debunk myths for consumers. To back up their statements, a companion brochure, including detailed scientific references, is also available on the website.

Dr. Powell said, “When it comes to food and agriculture, answers to questions about food safety, nutrition or animal welfare, some of the ‘conventional wisdom’ commonly found on the internet and in popular media often isn’t the ‘accurate wisdom.’  We hope this campaign will highlight for news sources as well as consumers that animal and meat science departments at universities can be useful resources when information seems confusing or unclear.”

Riley was concerned about “how many misconceptions exist about meat production, safety, nutrition and welfare” and pointed out that “The members of the American Meat Science Association are a tremendous – and often untapped – resource for consumers.”

“It’s also gratifying to see the student members of AMSA get engaged in these MythCrushing efforts,” she said. “They are smart, motivated and social media savvy and I think they can be extremely effective in spreading the word among their peers.”

‘Agvocating,’ the growing practice by many in animal agriculture to get out in front of the critical issues and explain the real facts to an often misinformed public got a nod from Riley, too.  “Educating our consumers is not something that any one individual or organization can do and it can’t be done overnight.  It’s going to take an army of people who are actively working to spread the good news and the facts.”

Watching what’s being said in the social media, that army of people she mentioned is growing quickly but informally.  Let’s call it an old-fashioned citizens’ militia.

Carrying on with that military theme and expressing a sentiment held by members of the AMSA and AMI, Riley said, “We hope the Meat MythCrushers will give our industry the tools to help educate America.  We all have to be meat myth warriors to effect real change.”

Let’s spend a few minutes with Dr. Powell and www.MeatMythCrushers.com.

Q. Dr. Powell, your organization has been working with the American Meat Institute (AMI) to develop content for a new web site called “Meat MythCrushers.”  Why did the two groups feel it was a necessary project?

A. We were looking for a way to harness social media to explain clearly some of the science behind the safe and abundant food supply that consumers depend on. The nature of this medium is such that we can introduce consumers to actual meat scientists – the ones on the front lines of  our food supply system – rather than showing bullet points on a screen or presenting an industry PR person.

AMSA also sees this as a way to highlight the meat science discipline and to describe the valuable work that meat scientists do.

Q. From inception to its launch a few days ago, how long did it take and who was involved in the development?

A. The idea originated about a year ago as we were preparing for the 2010 AMSA Reciprocal Meat Conference (RMC). We worked with AMI to identify key areas of common misperceptions among consumers and then to find scientists with expertise in those subject areas. We selected twelve meat scientists and did the interviews during the RMC in June. The scientists served as content experts to put together the detailed information on each subject. The final step was review by members of the American Meat Science Association to verify the scientific integrity of all of the material.

Q. There are three basic parts to MythCrushers: food safety, animal welfare and nutrition. Will those continue to be the core issues or are there plans for the site to evolve?

A. Those are the core issues and there are plans for the site to evolve. I anticipate additional information being presented on those three core issues as well as expanding into other issues such as sustainability.

Q. There are twelve videos currently on the web site. Tell me about a few of the issues they address?

A. The use of sodium nitrite in processed meats is likely one of the most misunderstood aspects of meat production. There are a couple of videos in the set that directly address two common misconceptions – first that meat is the source of a majority of the nitrite in our diets – which it is not – and, secondly, that nitrite in our food is somehow poisoning us – which it is not.

We asked Dr. Nathan Bryan of the University of Houston and Dr. Jeff Sindelar of the University of Wisconsin to address these issues. They explained some of the research that has shown nitrite to actually be beneficial to human health and described how nitrite is a naturally occurring part of many foods.

The use of hormone supplements in livestock production is also a concern of many consumers. We asked Dr. Chris Raines, Dr. Deborah VanOverbeke and Dr. Rhonda Miller to talk about how these supplements are used in beef, pork and poultry production and to explain why they see these as safe, based on the research they have conducted.

Q. During the launch, you said, “When it comes to food and agriculture, answers to questions about food safety, nutrition or animal welfare, some of the ‘conventional wisdom’ commonly found on the internet and in popular media often isn’t the ‘accurate’ wisdom.”  What are some of those inaccuracies and how did they become ‘urban legends?’

A. The internet and popular media are full of messages whose purpose is to persuade people to change their behavior, creating an “exaggerated view of reality” to keep audiences tuned in. Frequently, specific bits of science-based fact will be combined with a healthy dose of opinion, conjecture and emotion to press a specific agenda. Many of these messages are designed to seed fear, guilt or mistrust. All of us when we hear messages like this about our food are naturally interested in how this affects our welfare and the safety of our families.

Q. MythCrushers has been ‘Facebooked,’ too.  How will the social media part of this program work?

A. We are watching and waiting to see what kinds of comments and questions we get on the site. Staff members are monitoring the page to answer questions and address concerns. At AMSA, we will be promoting the page among our global membership, encouraging them to spread the word in their networks.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.