Skewed visibility and influence leave conventional ag facing credibility and reputation challenges online, according to a report from v-Fluence Interactive. When consumers go online to look for information about the production practices that put meat and dairy products on their kitchen tables, they are most likely to see the kind of one-sided content featured in the documentary Food Inc., at the expense of content reflecting the points of view of most conventional producers or major food brands.

"Our research shows very few conventional producer groups or well-known food brands have a presence in the content that most frequently shows up when consumers search on these food production topics," says Randy Krotz, senior vice president and head of v-Fluence's Food and Agriculture practice. "And when they do, it's more likely because organic competitors or animal rights advocates are talking about them in a critical manner.

"In addition to omitting important voices that consumers should hear when they search on these topics, this landscape creates an uphill battle for producers and brands that seek to promote more animal-friendly production techniques as part of their sustainability and corporate reputation initiatives," Krotz says.

For example, the research shows 70 percent of the content consumers are likely to see when they search for information about beef production comes from producers of organic or grass-fed beef, rather than from conventional producers. Perhaps not surprisingly, this content is biased toward organic or grass-fed methods, suggesting they're safer alternatives to the kind of traditional, conventionally produced beef that has fed America for generations. Meanwhile, similar to the sensationalized documentary Food Inc., little content accurately representing conventional animal production or the brands under which it is sold appears to balance these critical claims.

Similarly, a majority of the content (60 percent) consumers see when they search for poultry and egg production topics comes from promoters of free-range and organic chicken. About 30 percent of the visible and influential content found online comes from advocacy groups such as United Poultry Concerns. The research shows little content from conventional poultry producers or well-known brands in this online environment, aside from some references to Tyson and Perdue Farms crediting their efforts to reduce antibiotics in chicken.

Other key findings:

  • Content critical of large-scale producers of beef and poultry appears when consumers specifically search for animal welfare topics. The content includes references to the treatment of animals and workers at slaughtering and packing facilities and comes from advocacy groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The v-Fluence study finds little visible content from the companies themselves or groups representing conventional producers effectively addressing such criticisms online.
  • Consumers associate some large food producers and brands with animal welfare and well-being more than others when they search. The study's analysis of consumers' most frequently used search terms shows they link meat suppliers Cargill and Tyson — via search terms like "Cargill animal welfare" and "Tyson free range chickens" — to these topics more than other brands.
  • Consumers also appear more likely to search for advocacy groups, such as the Animal Welfare League, Animal Welfare Society and Animal Welfare Institute, more frequently than food production companies, producer groups and individual brands when they are interested in animal welfare and well-being topics.

"Our study suggests the online information consumers see when they search for animal welfare and food production topics is largely skewed against conventional food producers and their brands," Krotz says. This means the debate leaves out critical questions like whether organic production can feed an expanding world with shrinking resources; the ongoing need for increasing, not decreasing, the global food supply; and the mandate to do all of the above in a way that is affordable not only to the wealthiest countries of the world but the poorest, too.

"These questions are all important ones, regardless of where you are on the continuum of public opinion," Krotz said. "Vigorous debate that includes all points of view is in everyone's best interest, and that's what's missing here."