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An industry's dilemma over whether the consumer is always right

Nobody seriously argues against the concept of a business being consumer or customer focused. Producing what the customer wants is simply good business. But, as an industry, we've always taken pride in being science-based as well, and the two increasingly seem to be moving in opposite directions.

There was quite a bit of stir created last month when the American Royal announced its Good Food Good Futures Institute (GFGFI). An initiative designed to link farms, food and health, the GFGFI concept apparently seeks to address the locally owned, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, environmentally friendly, and animal welfare issues of animal production. (In fact, the dinner for the kickoff event in Kansas City was to feature antibiotic- and hormone-free beef and locally raised free-range chicken.)

These are issues, to be sure, that consumers identify with, but their perceptions on these issues tend not to be based on scientific fact; in fact, they are often in conflict with it. So what's an industry to do?

Do we forsake real environmentally friendly practices, efficiency, food safety and health issues to pander to these perceptions and actually reinforce them with the hope that these early premiums will remain even as production practices align with these expectations? Or, do we try to educate our public when it has shown no sign of wanting to be educated — in essence, finding ourselves in the position of seemingly thumbing our noses at the very concerns they espouse? As one begins to discuss this issue, it becomes increasingly complicated.

As an individual entity looking to market beef, even a casual perusal of industry research will tell you that it makes sense to sell high-protein, nutrient-dense, lean Angus beef that's locally raised, all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free, and raised in an environmentally friendly way. The problem becomes moral and ethical. Ultimately, if sound science is rejected, it also leads to a smaller industry.

But is it right to capitalize on consumer misconceptions? Or, is it folly not to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by these misconceptions? Whose responsibility is it to educate consumers? Is it in our best interest to insist on scientific validity to our marketing claims? The list of questions expands almost geometrically as you look at building systems to meet consumer demands both real and fictional when viewed from a scientific standpoint.

Take the locally grown food movement. Most of us can somewhat understand this sentiment. And if there are premiums to be realized, then we should take them. But, at the same time, modern agriculture enabled consumers to have a safer, healthier, more abundant and cheaper food supply than ever before. There are good reasons why we grow corn in Iowa, oranges in Florida, and apples in Washington, for example.

Modern agriculture has done wonderful things for American consumers' enjoyment, as well as their health, pocketbook and the environment. And abandoning good economics and good science ultimately will prove expensive from an industry standpoint. It isn't just a question of how far down the slippery slope we want to go, but what is the ultimate result if we allow ourselves to be carried down to the bottom of that hill.

It's a different valley than what we're used to, but many would argue that it might be a profitable one.

Our dilemma is this, if I can paraphrase some famous lines. Is it a matter of: “Our consumer, right or wrong, may they always be right,” or is it “The ethical/moral thing is to do what is right, despite public opinion”?

It's a delicate balancing act that the industry must work on here, because lack of a valid strategy may ultimately mean we may have no say in the matter.

Troy Marshall is a seedstock producer and contributing editor to BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly, an electronic newsletter distributed every Friday afternoon. Sign up for a free subscription at