A few weeks ago, I wrote about an article that appeared in the New York Times titled, “At hamburger central, antibiotics for cattle that aren’t sick.” Written by investigative journalist Danny Hakim, it was clear by the portrayal of the beef industry that this writer and the publication had a biased agenda.
With industry quotes describing antibiotics as “performance enhancing drugs” and JBS as the “rotten meat mafia,” it was pretty tough for our side to get a word in otherwise, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with Paul Defoor, Cactus Feeders co-chief executive, who was interviewed for the article, as well as Maddy Ruble, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reputation management director, who helped Defoor prepare for Hakim’s visit to the feedlot. They offered me a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes and how even Defoor’s direct quotes about responsible antibiotic use were misrepresented in the piece to maintain a particular tone for the piece.
To get an idea of what went on ahead of publication, Ruble says in April 2017, Hakim started calling industry groups asking questions about antibiotic usage by beef producers.
“We were first contacted in early November 2017 by Hakim; he asked to visit a feedlot to see how antibiotics are used,” said Ruble. “Internally, we went back and forth on if and how to engage with Hakim. We knew his frame was going to be negative about Guidance 209/213 a year after the VFD was implemented. We knew if we didn’t help him, he would do it on his own, so we felt like we need to participate in any way we could to at least give him the opportunity to tell the real story about judicious and responsible use of antibiotics. We called the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) and asked for Defoor’s team — given not only their reputation and capability, but also the research and innovation they bring to the table.”
Cactus Feeders is involved in beef and pork production in Texas, Kansas, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. One of every 25 fed cattle in the U.S. is Cactus beef. Each week, 20,000 head of Cactus cattle produce 12 million pounds of boneless red meat. The company is heavily invested in researching new ways to produce more beef using fewer resources, and Defoor’s team hosts several tours throughout the year for large companies, retailers, the media and industry groups.
Needless to say, Defoor is well-versed on the education and talking points to explain how antibiotics are used in agriculture. He said one thing that surprises a lot of Cactus visitors is that only 4% of cattle entering the Cactus yards receive antibiotics. And while Defoor can’t guarantee that after every tour, the media writes fairly about animal agriculture, he admits he had reservations about speaking with Hakim.
“We knew ahead of time what Hakim’s approach would be to this article, and I had second thoughts and feelings about whether or not it was right to participate; however, I firmly believe we need to stand up and tell the truth,” said Defoor.
“Ultimately, I think the truth will win out in the end, so when he came to visit, we took the risk of being mischaracterized and presented him with the same educational resources and experiences that any of our visitors receive. I genuinely think he was favorably impressed with what we do as an industry and the things he learned on his visit, but I get that he also has a boss and an assignment to complete.”
Defoor said Hakim was armed with plenty of questions about antibiotics, but that he readily admitted he wasn’t knowledgeable about the industry. In fact, Hakim showed his naivety when he initially began his research and approached packing plants, not feedlots, to see antibiotics being used.
Looking back, Defoor wishes the story had gone in a different direction and was frustrated with the way some of his quotes were pieced together and misrepresented. For example, here is an excerpt from the article that took one of Defoor’s talking points and manipulated it to imply something else entirely.
Hakim writes, “Veterinary prescriptions are now required for farm antibiotics. But the new rules were designed in cooperation with drug companies and industrial farm groups.
“‘That didn’t affect us,’ Defoor of Cactus said of the ban; his company sees the antibiotics added to feed as a preventive health measure. Similarly, Zoetis, a major livestock drugmaker, said on its website that farmers ‘will see little difference’ in its tetracycline feed additives, beyond needing the appropriate paperwork from veterinarians.”
Defoor says this is what he actually said in the interview, “That didn’t affect us because we were not and are not using medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.”
In a follow-up email, he stressed to Hakim, “The way it is currently written implies we aren't complying with current regulation and leaves to the readers’ assumption why it didn't affect us. My intention and statement was that it won’t affect Cactus because we already didn't and don’t use medically important antibiotics for growth promotion.”
For what it’s worth, I still think Defoor did a great job of representing the industry in this article; imagine the direction the story would have taken if Hakim would have written something about how one of the largest feedlots in the country declined to comment. The readers might have been led to believe feedlots have something to hide or worse. Being at the table is definitely better than not, especially in something like this were the negative folks are more than happy to bash modern beef production.
Looking back on it, Defoor said of the experience, “I still think it’s important to participate in media interviews and explain what we do and why we do it. There’s nothing to hide here, but not everything in the cattle business is pleasant. When an animal is sick or it dies or even when the finished cattle are hauled to the packer after months of caring for them, it’s sad. Yet, it’s reality, and it’s how we feed the world. At Cactus Feeders, we’ll keep telling our story and hosting tours.”
Ruble offered advice to producers who may be approached for interviews in the future. She said, “I think my advice when approached about a story like this, when you know there is a slant and it’s a risky choice – risky to participate and potentially more risky to not participate – is to reach out for support.
“In this case, we approached Paul, but if and when producers are contacted by media or a similar group, lean on your beef council, affiliations (TCFA in this case) and relationships within the industry. We have a full team through the beef checkoff that handles these things, from prep to response and every step in between. Let us help with prep and background and follow up.”
She added, “Knowing what is going to be asked, at least a frame of questions, is always best. Paul stuck to one sentence sound bites and was still misrepresented. My advice is be transparent, but also don’t be afraid to sound like a broken record to stick to message (like Paul) and bridge back to what you want to talk about.
“You are the one being interviewed, so tell your story over and over and over. You can’t make them write anything but, afterward, that’s where we can help with guidance on how, if, and when to respond, and how strong of a stance to take.”
The moral of the story is this: If someone were to ask you about what you do on your ranch, are you prepared to answer their questions? If not, perhaps some homework and brushing up on your talking points might be a good idea.
It may just be a mom at school, a parishioner at your church or the local newspaper, but we have a great story to tell. To tell it effectively, we must approach it both logically using sound science and emotionally that connects with our consumers and what they might be feeling.
I challenge each of you to ask yourselves honestly if you are ready to have these sometimes tough conversations. Our industry and its reputation is at stake, and we all must be credible, trustworthy voices our consumers can rely on.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.