Beef is good for you. That’s the simple message the industry continually seeks to broadcast. Ads on television and the Web and in print try to reach that segment of consumers who avoid beef because they think it’s bad for their health, emphasizing beef’s nutritional value, especially as a source of zinc, iron, protein and several B vitamins.

Much of the industry’s educational effort is directed toward the younger crowd, a more impressionable, but somewhat tougher to reach, audience. On the beef.org Web site, in an area called teachfree.com, grade-school educators can find kits that include that nutritional message, emphasizing the need for iron and zinc in children’s diets, along with food safety tips and diet and fitness recommendations. There’s a food pyramid-type chart intended for kids, available in poster form. The slightly older set can click on the link to zip4tweens.com (zip is an acronym for zinc, iron and protein) to find games, age-appropriate recipes and fitness advice.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of competition for the opportunity to mold the minds of the younger generation, and much of it is trying to sew very different ideas from those of the beef industry. For example, on the site called teachkind.org, a curriculum is offered that seeks to persuade children to adopt a vegetarian diet and avoid participating in “animal cruelty,” and condemns involvement in animal agriculture. “Youth livestock programs have no place in a society where eating meat is unnecessary for human health and survival,” the site proclaims. A segment called “Let’s Ask the Animals” describes “the similarities between humans, pigs, chickens, cows and sheep.”           

It seems children are likely to be very interested in pictures of cute animals, and PETA’s Web site features lots of cute animal pictures to play on their natural sympathies. At petakids.com, they can also enter contests; play possibly appealing gross games such as “Make Fred Spew” (which you can do by making him eat dairy products) and “Lobster Liberation”; and shop for items such as PETA logo backpacks, stickers and animal rights bracelets (“Ask Mom to order you one”).

PETA also exploits the fear factor in its communications with children. They offer Unhappy Meals, showing Ronald McDonald swinging an axe and blood-splattered plastic animal toys. Comic books called “Your Daddy Kills Animals!” and “Your Mommy Kills Animals!” describe the bloodthirsty nature of parents who fish or wear fur. To appeal to their weight concerns, PETA offers cartoon characters such as Tubby Tammy, who is unable to button her pants because she ate too much chicken. These are just some of the materials PETA hands out to kids as young as 6 years old on their way to and from school. PETA has claimed that its messages reach more than 2 million children a year.

The beef industry has its work cut out for it in trying to be heard over such voices; while its message may have reason on its side, that doesn’t mean it’s the one most likely to get heard.