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Is honesty the best policy?

Emily Metz Meredith, Animal Agriculture Alliance Published on 07 August 2013

Most mothers (mine being no exception) have often said, “honesty is always the best policy.” But sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth. For the ag industry, honesty can often be met with harsh criticism, confusion or misunderstanding.

As those of us in ag have come to quickly realize, honesty isn’t always the easy way. In fact, it’s often extremely difficult for us to confidently communicate what “we do” and how “we do it.” That’s not to say we’re somehow ashamed of our practices or our industry, but rather that communicating exactly what goes on, day in and day out, is a challenge.

Recently, Panera Bread Company launched a campaign that revolves around the complex – and often confusing – issue of antibiotic use in livestock production. But here’s the shocker: While I blame Panera for its campaign (which, at times is downright insulting to the very farmers who grow and raise their food), I blame agriculture more.

It’s ag’s fault that it has become so easy to use fear and misinformation to sell products. It’s our fault that companies, like Panera, feel that it’s a winning marketing tactic to cast doubt on science-based and ethically sound production practices that are used to keep animals healthy. And it’s our fault that we in ag oftentimes sling mud at each other in order to gain the upper hand and increase sales margins.

It would be easy to get mad at the Chipotles and Paneras of the world for their marketing campaigns, but the truth is that we’ve done a pretty shoddy job at communicating ourselves. I get that 10 years ago the average consumer wasn’t quite as far removed from the family farm and they weren’t quite as curious about how their food was produced as they are today.

But we’re here in 2013 and unfortunately the majority of Americans are at least three generations removed from the family farm and are asking a lot of questions about food production. From genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to animal welfare, antibiotics and sustainability, consumers are asking questions about their food -- and those questions aren’t out of line.

Consumers lack the first-hand knowledge of how food is produced, and unfortunately, there are groups out there that are all too eager to help “educate” consumers about the “truth.” Until recently, our story had by and large been told by those who are directly opposed to animal agriculture, and so we’re starting the race to engage about 10 miles behind the starting block.

I’m confident that we can make up for lost time. I don’t think we’ll be behind forever. But the truth is that we need to start honestly, and openly, communicating.

What is honesty?

Well, last week I was speaking to a bunch of ag interns and we were discussing the need to engage with consumers, to get outside the “ag bubble” and to start to have some meaningful conversations no matter how difficult. One of the interns came up to me after my speech and was telling me how she often times tried to talk to her fellow peers during mealtimes on her college campus.

At one point, the intern said “well and during ‘harvest’...” to which I quickly replied, “harvest, you mean slaughter, right?” Turns out she did mean “slaughter” but had been told by her agriculture communications professor that research shows that we in the industry should call slaughter “harvest” because it has a kinder, gentler connotation.

Well, all due respect to this particular ag communication professor, but calling slaughter “harvest” is like putting lipstick on a pig.

When I think of harvest I think of a farmer out in the fields, literally “harvesting” his crops, cutting his wheat, corn or picking his fresh vegetables. On the flip side, I also think of a surgeon “harvesting” organs for a transplant. Neither of these images meet the intended mark, and I would argue confuse consumers even more.

I understand what the intent was. Slaughter isn’t a “pretty” process per-se, and so by calling it something different, we perhaps mask some of the true grittiness and protect consumers.

But when you’re talking to American consumers, a group that has become more and more distrustful over the past few years, and you’re changing terminology based on research or best intentions, the end result is that it looks like: (1) we in the industry are ashamed that we raise (and kill) animals for food, and (2) that we have something to hide.

Are either of those things true? Certainly not, but we live in a world where perception is nine-tenths of the truth. We harvest crops and slaughter animals.

I know that we in the industry have invested bunches of cash into researching how certain words, phrases or messages “play” with consumers; to the point where I certainly think we’re over researched and over messaged.

The truth is always going to resonate more with consumers. We need to get out there and start telling it. Call slaughter what it is (spoiler alert: animals raised for food die in the end) and spend time explaining how much the industry has evolved in terms of animal care, pain management and welfare. Talk about how famed veterinarian, behaviorist, and ethicist Dr. Temple Grandin has worked tirelessly to make sure that animals are their calmest and feel the least amount of pain before slaughter.

Talk about how farming and ranching today is leaps and bounds more sustainable than it was 100 years ago, or how ranchers are the original recyclers and stewards of the land. Explain how ranching is in your blood and you feel like it’s your duty to pass on the land to future generations in better condition than when you found it.

And yes, talk about how you do – or don’t use – antibiotics. Tell consumers the difference between conventional, organic, or “raised without antibiotics.” Talk about how you use antibiotics judiciously to treat sick animals or prevent diseases; or if you raise your animals without antibiotics, explain your reasoning without slinging mud at those who do.

We’re all in this communications battle together and the least we can do is not tear each other down. Tell your stories, in your way, regardless of the polling data or most commonly used “buzz words.” We need to start giving it to consumers and restaurants straight and we need to hold those spreading misinformation – even within our own industry – accountable. Be open, be honest, and above all, tell the truth.

Listen to your mothers: honesty is always the best policy.  end mark

 

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Emily Metz Meredith
Communications Director
Animal Agriculture Alliance

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