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Dangerous perceptions

TAGS: Pasture

Several years ago, McDonald's quit using foam packaging and switched to using paper and cardboard for wrapping its food products. The fast-food giant did this under pressure from environmental groups to move away from packaging whose manufacturing produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

While there's little doubt that CFC's are detrimental for the environment, there was actually good scientific evidence supporting the idea that foam packaging was actually better for the environment than paper packaging.

So, why did McDonald's switch? McDonald's decided that it was in the business of selling hamburgers, not packaging. There was a fair amount of media interest in this issue at the time, so the public perception that McDonald's was doing something positive for the environment by making the switch was also a bonus. I thought this was a very shrewd business decision.

Advertising gimmicks

Recently Chipotle Mexican Grill, a national restaurant chain, unveiled an advertising campaign by placing billboards that read: “Get antibiotics from your doctor, not your beef.” The ad campaign trumpeted the restaurant chain's decision to use only antibiotic- and hormone-free beef on its menu. It was, for sure, a catchy little slogan that certainly attracted some attention.

I don't have a problem with natural or organic beef. It's expensive to produce and expensive to buy, but if a consumer wants to pay the higher price, it's their call. There's no scientific evidence indicating that natural or organic beef is better or safer than conventionally raised beef. In fact, an Ohio State University (LeJeune) study showed there's really no difference in pathogen load between samples of conventionally raised ground beef and ground beef raised without antibiotics.

Meanwhile, another study indicates that the pathogen load on the hides of conventionally raised beef is lower than the pathogen load on the hides of beef raised under the natural/organic regimen.

The problem I have with this restaurant's ad campaign is the perception it gives consumers. While the ad is very effective in promoting the beef that the Chipotle chain is serving, it also backhands the rest of the beef industry.

The implication is that the much larger segment of the U.S. beef industry, which is not organic or natural, doesn't observe withdrawal times and is sloppy and careless in its use of antibiotics. It implies conventional beef is unsafe and that our industry can't be trusted.

The ad is disparaging to the rest of the industry solely for the purpose of promoting one restaurant. Not only should producers of conventional beef be incensed, but so should producers (and marketers) of natural and organic beef.

I looked up several natural/organic websites to see what types of comments or claims they made for their products. Aside from a few facts that may have been embellished to their advantage, I was pleased to find very few of these beef purveyors blatantly discredited conventionally raised beef.

Industry patrol

Our industry doesn't really have a shrewd recourse on this issue like McDonald's did with its packaging. McDonald's simply had to change its packaging materials, and any added costs incurred by the change could very reasonably be passed on to the consumer.

In order for the beef industry to make a similar move, the entire production system would have to change; the added expense to the consumer would probably be great enough to alter beef demand.

But conventional beef producers and natural/organic beef producers should work together to stop this type of message. It really benefits neither group and it calls into question the integrity of the entire beef industry.

The public gains a negative perception and, too often, perception becomes fact. In this vet's opinion, not only should the offending restaurant be taken to task, but so should the advertising agency that suggested the campaign.

Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot consulting veterinarian at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. Contact him at 620-675-8180.