Beef producers and industry stakeholders face a communications dilemma. We know consumers have concerns over modern production of meat and other foods. We know they lack familiarity with farming and ranching and are susceptible to negative misinformation.

We know we need to communicate more and communicate better to foster understanding of the food system that brings safe, wholesome and affordable beef to consumers’ plates.

Achieving that communication, however, or even agreeing on what we need to communicate, presents a serious challenge. At the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholder Summit, most participants agreed the livestock sector needs to communicate better with the general public. But once the discussion shifted to specific messages and methods for addressing that perception gap, the opinions were, well, less in alignment.

The theme for this year’s summit was “Activists at the door: Protecting animals, farms, food and consumer confidence.” The first speaker was Joe Miller, general counsel for Rose Acre Farms, a large egg production operation. Miller focused largely on “livestock interference” legislation, or the so-called “Ag-Gag” laws passed in eight states and under consideration in others.

As a lawyer, Miller approached the issue from a legal standpoint, stressing the laws protect businesses from spying and clandestine videos but do not prevent whistle-blowing or reporting of abuse on farms or ranches.

Miller stressed that an expectation of privacy in businesses and some limitations on First Amendment free-speech rights are well established in U.S. law. He also noted that most of the new laws require immediate reporting if employees observe incidents of abuse, while animal-rights  groups have withheld clandestine videos for months while gathering more evidence. Thus, he says, the laws will promote better animal care.

Opponents of these laws maintain that consumers have a right to see how food is produced, but Miller said they really have no such right. He was speaking from a legal perspective, but his statement drew criticism from several later speakers and panel members who insisted the industry has an obligation to provide the public with information and transparency, whether or not consumers have a legal right to that information.

Miller acknowledged agriculture needs to engage consumers in a discussion of animal welfare and other issues of concern in livestock production. His statement, “They don’t need to understand us; we need to understand them,” found agreement among the audience and other speakers. Kathy Keiffer, a broadcaster who produces a food-issue program on the Heritage Radio Network, had a different perspective. Saying consumer awareness is the biggest change occurring in the food business, Keiffer maintained that agriculture makes a mistake by responding to consumer concerns in a defensive, crisis mode. “We try to shoot down activists while stonewalling, redirecting blame and maintaining a veil of secrecy.” She stressed that activists continue to catch animal-abuse offenders in spite of the industry claiming the videos are isolated incidents. The farm-protection bills send the wrong message, she insists, by indicating farmers and ranchers are unwilling to let the public know how livestock are raised.

Keiffer, who stressed she is a meat lover who supports livestock producers, also said mainstream animal agriculture needs to reconsider its defense of some uses of antibiotics and beta agonists. She cited antibiotic residues in animal waste and antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and said 160 countries have banned the use of ractopamine in livestock. Animal agriculture’s scientific defense of these products, she maintains, sends a message that the industry favors profit motive over public safety.

We’re in the midst of a food revolution, Keiffer says. Influential celebrity chefs are embracing new paradigms in raising livestock, and progressive food companies are shifting toward more “natural” production systems. Many in the audience disagreed with some details in Keiffer’s presentation but accepted her message that stakeholders in animal agriculture need to listen to consumers and embrace change.

Taking more of the middle road, David Westcott, director of digital strategy for APCO Worldwide and a social-media expert, joined a panel on using social media. He led off saying legal arguments to defend practices do not play well with consumers. In response to the earlier statement that consumers “do not have a right to know how their food is produced,” he responded, “Tell that to a mom.”

As for dialog with consumers, he simplified the process by suggesting three steps:

1. Know who your stakeholders are.

2. Ask them what they want.

3. Give it to them.

Women, and particularly moms who make family food decisions, increasingly turn to bloggers and social media for information. Popular “mom bloggers” Sarah Braesh and Joanne Bamberger suggested livestock producers and others in the industry identify key bloggers and influencers in social media and reach out to them. Take time to research who these people are and the communities they reach so you can target your message appropriately. Do not preach to them or try to pressure them to tell “our side” of the story. Instead, offer a dialog. Offer to answer questions about how you raise your livestock and why. Invite them to your operation to experience it first-hand.

Reaching tomorrows consumers

If the industry struggles to communicate with moms and middle-aged consumers, reaching the next generation could present even greater challenges. Ron Morasco, an executive chef who now serves as senior director of offer development, campus services, for foodservice company Sodexo USA, also spoke at the summit, providing a snapshot of food priorities on college campuses and his company’s challenges in meeting them. Today’s college students live in a global society but want local foods. They want value and authenticity. They want it all but at a good price.

How transparent should we be?

The need for more transparency is a common theme in discussions about agriculture’s relationship with the public, but questions arise as to the appropriate level of transparency. A recent report titled “Building trust in what we eat,” from advertising and marketing agency Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, indicates more transparency from producers and food companies could be beneficial, most of the time.

In that study, only 19 percent of survey respondents believe food companies are transparent about how food is produced, while 22 percent believe the agricultural community is transparent.

In both cases, consumers who rate their food knowledge as good or excellent were somewhat more likely to believe food companies and agriculture are sufficiently transparent, suggesting consumer education can help build trust.

Farm visits had some positive impact on consumers’ perceptions of food. Nineteen percent of all consumers and 22 percent of moms who had visited a farm said it made them feel better about food. For a majority, a farm visit had no influence, and for 6 percent of all consumers and 11 percent of moms, visiting a farm actually made them feel worse about food. More recent visits had more positive impact, as 26 percent of consumers who visited a farm in the past year felt better about food compared with just 10 percent whose last farm visit was 10 to 20 years ago. Fifty-three percent of consumers consider farmers and ranchers trustworthy sources of food information, compared with just 17 percent for food manufacturers.

Glass walls at the packing plants

“What will happen if we show them what we do?” That was a question the American Meat Institute (AMI) and its meatpacker members asked as they sought to improve transparency and build customer trust. Speaking at the summit, Janet Riley, AMI’s senior vice president for public affairs and professional development, offered some answers to the question.

Animal-rights activists often say if slaughter houses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians. AMI decided to test that theory by launching their “Glass Walls Project” in 2012. Noting that public trust in large corporations has plummeted inrecent years and that consumers increasingly demand more information about food production, Riley says AMI approached Colorado State University professor and animal-handling expert Temple Grandin, PhD, to record videos of the entire livestock-slaughter process.

Last year, AMI taped an unscripted video tour of a beef-packing plant, narrated by Grandin. They left it to Grandin to select a representative plant at which to film. AMI tested the initial video with consumer focus groups, not knowing what to expect in terms of reactions. Most of the test viewers were surprised by the safety measures for workers, efficiency of operation and the humane treatment of animals. There were a few points of confusion, which the producers addressed by expanding the explanations in the video, which they released in August 2012.

Since then, more than 45,000 people have viewed the video on AMI’s website, and feedback from consumers, teachers and media has been mostly positive.

AMI also has produced a brochure titled “If meat plants had glass walls…What would happen?” The publication, available online and in print, provides more detail, photos and questions and answers on beef and pork slaughter with Dr. Grandin.  

People sometimes ask Riley whether packing plants should make real-time video feeds from their processing areas available to the public online. She favors transparency but believes live videos could be counterproductive due to the lack of context. “If I saw a live feed of cardiac surgery,” she says, “I wouldn’t know whether it was a brilliant surgeon or malpractice. I need someone to explain to me what’s happening.” That is what Grandin accomplishes in the recorded videos, helping the viewer understand what they are seeing and why things are done the way they are. The demand for transparency will continue to intensify, Riley says, adding that packers must show the public how their business works, rather than letting anti-meat organizations monopolize that discussion.