Capture the hearts and minds of consumers
Trade, antibiotics, food safety and the estate tax were some of the issues that Forrest Roberts, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) touched on during his address at the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) Convention, Dec. 3 to 4 in Wichita, Kan. Of all the issues he discussed, Roberts said the one with the most energy is animal welfare.
"It does not take a rocket scientist to see what has happened in our industry, starting all the way back with the book "Omnivores Dilemma" to the recent film "Food, Inc." and articles in Time magazine and the New York Times, to understand how much pressure our industry is under when you think about animal welfare," Roberts said.
Roberts said this is about capturing the hearts and minds of the consumer. It is about defending, sustaining, and advancing modern beef production.
Pack of wolves
Dr. Dan Thomson, K-State Beef Cattle Institute, compared the attack on the beef industry like "a pack of wolves attacking a moose." As soon as the industry turns to face one activist group, another one attacks from the other side.
"They keep attacking and their goal is to kill the moose," Thomson said. "Their goal is to abolish animal agriculture."
What groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) depict on the nightly news is not animal welfare; it is animal abuse, he continued. Of course, no one is in favor of animal abuse, he said.
"They want people to think of those events as an everyday occurrence in our industry," Thomson said.
Thomson said it was not very long ago that nearly 50 percent of the population identified themselves as a farmer or rancher on their tax return. Every other person was involved in agriculture and farmers did not have to tell anyone about what they do for a living because everyone was involved.
"Today, we are a minority and we need to have our voices heard," Thomson said.
When it comes to being heard television is king, but the younger generation is turning off the television and turning onto the Internet. The younger generation uses the Internet along with social media like Facebook, blogs, and Twitter to get information. Activist groups realize this, and the beef industry needs to get on board, he said.
Jody Donohue, chairwoman of the KLA membership committee, started a blog about beef production last summer and she uses Twitter to spread the word as well. By 3 p.m. on the first day of the KLA Convention, Donohue had already sent more than 30 "tweets" about the convention.
Donohue said she started her blog the week the film, Food Inc., came out.
"I got mad at the Kansas City Star," Donohue said. "Their movie critic and the food critic said this movie would change the way you eat for the better. Before that this movie was not even on my radar, then here it is--saying farmers don't know what they are doing."
After seeing the movie Donohue said her blood was boiling; so, she went home and started a blog. Now she blogs every day countering some of the campaigns started by PETA and HSUS.
Donohue has made lots of new friends through her blog and discovered that there is a loose-knit network of people all across the country blogging in favor of production agriculture. Donohue said there are attorneys, fashion designers, and actors writing about these issues.
"But we in agriculture spend too much time talking to each other," Donohue said. "We need to talk with other people outside agriculture. We should spend about a fourth of our time talking to each other and the rest talking to people who know nothing about farming or ranching."
Animal protection groups are smart, organized, and politically connected. Recently their organization has taken a new turn by combining animal rights issues with environmental issues.
Allie Devine, vice president and general counsel for KLA, is not sure when it happened, exactly, but it has happened.
"An example of how the animal rights groups have merged into the environmental arena is the HSUS's petition to the EPA seeking to regulate confined animal feeding operations," Devine said. "They say they are doing this because it is an animal protection issue because confined animal feeding operations are not a healthy environment for animals."
Devine said they are using the environmental laws to further their desire to dismantle so-called "factory farms," These groups are clearly targeting confined animal feeding operations.
We are the home team
All is not lost, however. Thomson said a recent survey showed 97.4 percent of people in this country eat meat. Lush, Norwood, and Prickett did the survey in 2007 and contacted 6,365 households in rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. The results showed more than 97 percent ate meat on a regular basis. The beef industry specifically and the meat industry in general needs to start thinking creatively about how to bring the people who eat meat into the fold, Thomson added.
"We are the home team," Thomson said.
But there are some things the industry needs to do to disarm the critics. Thomson said cattlemen need to quit doing dumb things and condemn bad actors. Producers need to find better ways to handle downed animals and look for better ways to handle painful procedures like castration and dehorning. Thomson said his issue with castration and dehorning is not how we do it but when we do it. Finally, cattlemen need to pay attention to preconditioning and death loss.
There are some risk areas that need more attention. Labor is at the top of this list for Thomson. Thomson said employers need to do more background checks and be careful whom they hire. Public places like sale barns and truck stops are the other risk areas he cited. These are places where the general public has regular contact with the livestock industry.
"These activists and the influence they have and the political and financial muscle they have is unparallel to anything that this industry has faced in the past," Roberts said.
Roberts said when groups like HSUS have a war chest of about $250 million and NCBA operates on a budget of $538,000, cattlemen need to be very smart, very diligent, and very focused in order to take back the hearts and minds of the consumer.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.