The Balancing Act Of Consumer Perception

The Balancing Act Of Consumer Perception

 Our industry continues to evaluate the lessons associated with the recent fiasco over lean finely textured beef (LFTB). Here’s a product that benefitted both producers and consumers, as well as the environment. But its food safety and healthfulness profile was severely damaged, essentially on the basis of a really effective characterization being applied to it – pink slime.

The consensus among most experts is that we were simply outmaneuvered by activists. They say there was little the industry could have done to win the battle for public perception, once the pink slime crusade was launched with the help of the popular media. After all, the pictures weren’t appetizing, as the process looked mechanical and large scale. Throw in a word like “ammonia,” and the average person’s gross meter simply shot through the roof.

This week, the dairy industry is starting to experience rumblings that activists are going to tackle milk protein concentrate, attempting to make it into the equivalent of the beef industry’s pink slime. I’m betting it won’t be effective; after all, they don’t have a cool name, something like brown bovine ooze. However, time will tell.

That news was followed this week by Consumer Reports’ publication of the results of its survey indicating that consumers want antibiotic-free meat. I don’t put much stock in this type of consumer survey. Sure, everyone wants antibiotic-free meat, but do they understand that the responsible use of antibiotics in the production system not only means healthier cattle and meat products, but also results in antibiotic-free products?

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” But we need to be actively engaged as an industry, and as individuals, in shaping consumer perception through education. Otherwise, we could see legislation created that could dramatically harm our industry, or public perception build to the point that production practices that benefit everyone are simply eliminated.

Asking uninformed consumers questions about agricultural practices can be helpful in one respect, however, as it can deliver valuable insight into where to direct effective education and public relations.

While perception does become reality, it doesn’t have any relationship to actual science. No doubt, consumers are far removed from first-hand knowledge of the production process, but they’re increasingly being swayed to the belief that modern agriculture is somehow bad for consumers and/or producers. Thus, we’ll continue to see modern production practices attacked.

With this naivete as a backdrop, virtually anything can be mischaracterized to build skepticism in consumers’ minds. Thus, the industry must not only develop a more comprehensive strategy to defend valid production practices, but be proactive rather than reactive in the process.

Anti-meat and anti-ag activists are utilizing the same strategies employed by the environmental movement, who push for anything that will lower demand for food and energy. It may not be possible to win open public debates and win legislative values when the science and cost/benefit analysis doesn’t justify changes. However, if one can create the right perception in the minds of consumers they can be blinded to the overall public good. You can forget sound science; it doesn’t withstand the gross test.

Most producers are focused on making the best product possible, on taking care of their animals and the land, and trying to raise and support their families. It’s a full-time job, plus some. So, it’s not surprising that most producers neglect to join their state and national cattlemen’s associations that fight this battle every day.

Our industry does a better job of building demand, only because of the mandatory nature of the checkoff. But even that endeavor is largely underfunded given the size of our industry and the dollars being spent by our competitors who are more integrated in their approach and thus able to spend far more building and creating demand.

However, it’s no longer a job that we can neglect. If the industry doesn’t create a better infrastructure to deal with the threats and take advantage of the opportunities, we’ll continue to see our industry shrink, to the glee of the radical minorities who are committed to its decline. 

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