Public Interactions: Accurately Sharing The Cattle Story
Published on Mon, 12/14/2020 - 12:43pm
Public Interactions: Accurately Sharing The Cattle Story.
By Jaclyn Krymowski.
Animal agriculture is rife with misconceptions. The internet has given a platform for the voices of many experts and laymen to share their opinions. A double-edged sword, it is also the first place many consumers will go to have questions answered about how their food is produced. Unfortunately, the first results that pop up in a search engine aren’t necessarily factual.
Beef, being arguably the most unique and complex sectors in the U.S. food economy, is in a special place when it comes to public perception and curiosity. Beef production is among the largest agricultural industries with cattle being raised in all 50 states. According to the USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, in 2018 the amount of beef consumed in the U.S. on a per capita basis was a staggering 57.2 lbs.
While the significance of the beef industry certainly gets its well-deserved spotlight, there is some unfortunate kickback. This means it is also one of the first industries to get a critical eye when it comes to topics such as animal welfare, sustainability, worker’s rights and more.
It is most certainly not any one company or individual’s job to right all the wrongs and incorrect statements against the industry, but whenever we are on social media, in public or attending industry related events, we are all the face of the beef industry with mindful consumers watching if we think about it or not.
What consumers care about
The first step to successful dialogue with the public is understanding what beef consumers (and non-consumers) want and expect of the industry. It may not always be realistic or practical but understanding the values in which people’s concerns stem from is important.
While the degree and specifics of concern fluctuate according to the culture and generational shifts, we can pick out the trends fairly easily. Essentially, people want to know their food is safe and healthy for their families, environmentally sustainable and humanely produced via animals and employees. The growth in the organic and grassfed sectors are solid evidence of what some consumers have an interest in, and are willing to pay for, regardless of their industry knowledge.
According to data from the 2017 U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance Consumer Perception Report, 34% of Americans “strongly trust” farmers and ranchers (up from 24% in 2015) but felt the need to cut back on beef, pork and dairy in attempts to achieve a more “clean diet.” Also of note, 75% of survey respondents reported they “always” or “often” read labels while shopping. Statements such as hormone and antibiotic free were major considerations before purchase.
Answering the tough questions
When you know what thoughts and values consumers are thinking about before you ever engage, it’s fairly easy to predict their quests as well as what they expect of you as a producer. This information can be used in both candid discourse as well as in the promotion of your operation and products.
One of the best ways to go about discussion is to address your own practices as a beef producer and specifically why you choose to implement them. Then, you can tie it back to how those practices uphold what the consumer values and build off common ground.
For example, if you are a conventional producer, someone may enquire why you choose to use antibiotics and how you use them. A good response would be one incorporating how appropriate, regulated treatment of sick animals is one of the ways you practice animal welfare, in addition to preventative measures. Taking it another step further, you could highlight how consumers are protected with withdraw regulations before slaughter.
It is important you know the process of the whole food supply chain, explaining what precautions are taken even after animals leave your ranch and move onto the feedlot or processor. Be familiar with the role of food inspectors, veterinarians, feeders and the many others involved in the supply chain. Remember, it takes a unified effort to get products safely and efficiently to consumers; what everyone contributes matters.
Another point worth making is that while there is a variety of labels, choices and prices available to consumers, all these products are kept safe, nutritious and sustainable as possible. Most of the public has a solid understand of what things like quality and yield grades, safety inspections, organic, “naturally raised” actually mean. You can explain the differences and similarities without putting down another part of the industry.
Cattle producers have an advantage in the sustainability discussion, despite the widespread misinformation. There are multiple ways individuals and companies are working to reduce environmental impact.
A great way to go about this is explain the efficiency of today’s cattle thanks to better feed products and genetics. As grazers, cattle also have the ability to take land unfit for crop production and turn it into a nutrient-dense food product – all while improving rangelands under managed grazing.
Likewise, be aware of what genuine issues and challenges there are facing the industry. By admitting the room for improvement – and the willingness to achieve it – the industry comes across as wanting to continually improve. It is much better to be open to constructive criticism as opposed to argumentative.
Educate and engage
To educate the public, first educate yourself on what goes on in the larger beef industry. Become familiar with universally accepted standards, knowing how and why animal welfare and food safety are industry-wide values. Low stress animal handling and how veterinary medicine is used are good examples.
Understanding the big picture does not take away from the importance of telling your personal story, experiences and values. You may have implemented certain practices on your operation to enhance sustainability or improve animal welfare. Those are things you can share before even being approached with questions. These personal testaments are especially valuable on social media and web-based platforms.
Plenty of factual resources are out there for industry experts and consumers alike. Beef Quality Assurance certification is a great way to not only train yourself, but also explain to consumers how the industry-wide effort to produce beef as ethically and safely as possible.
There is also the Masters of Beef Advocacy program funded by the checkoff program which provides advocacy-specific training. The course is free and accessible via easy to complete online modules. There are also lots of websites, extension material and content to direct others to with more information.
Having a human connection makes all the difference between a consumer and a potential consumer. At any time, you could find yourself in a situation to share your experiences and knowledge in a way that builds this connection. Remember, any time you are in a public venue be it a show, auction, sale or convention you are a face of beef production and articulating that effectively is important.
Likewise, if you are advocacy-savvy and you have the room to be an active voice in the public, it is strongly encouraged and very much needed. There are people within your own personal circle who may be more curious about beef production than you realize. Don’t be afraid to be a bit bold. Start the conversations, share your thoughts and be transparent about both the difficult and light-hearted subjects.