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Science is not enough for today’s consumer

By John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

The agricultural industry has long stood behind scientific standards to justify our production standards. However, today’s society is simply not going to give us a “free pass” and absolutely trust us to do the right thing. It is simply not going to be good enough to provide a plentiful, economical food supply. Customers want to know more about how their food is produced. If we do not maintain their trust, the economic ramifications can be devastating.

Problems can arise if an industry does not recognize customer concerns and work aggressively to address these issues. Events from earlier this year are a prime example of this fact. The controversy over Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), aka “Pink Slime,” became highly visible in March, 2012 as a result of extensive media coverage. LFTB is a product that has been used for several years in our food supply but had started to be scrutinized over the past couple of years. The producers of LFTB were ill-prepared and slow to react to the media firestorm and consumer backlash that was directed towards them. Significant economic damage was felt by the companies that produce LFTB and the entire beef industry.

More proof of the power of the consumer can be found within the pork and poultry industries. It is a common occurrence these days to see a press release in the news about a large grocery or restaurant chain announcing they will not be purchasing pork or poultry from suppliers that allow animals to be raised in restrictive housing such as gestation crates or battery cages. The suppliers are generally given a period of years to phase in new housing practices but the fact is that a “line in the sand” has been drawn. I suspect that meat suppliers are taking these announcements seriously and changes in the production system will occur.

Last month Tyson Foods, Inc. announced the launch of its “FarmCheck” program through which they intend to audit the treatment of animals at livestock and poultry farms that supply the company. The program has already begun at some of the hog farms that supply the company and Tyson intends to expand the program to include cattle and chicken operations by early 2014. Animal welfare audits are not new to livestock producers but most programs have been voluntary to this point.

Reaction to the company’s announcement was quick from different sources. As one might expect, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced that they do not think the Tyson program goes far enough to address animal welfare concerns. Also, the beef cattle organization R-CALF USA states the audits will go too far as they believe the Tyson program infringes on the private property rights of independent farmers and ranchers.

It is my opinion that the trend of food companies, grocery and restaurant chains becoming more involved in how we produce animals is not going away anytime soon. How the livestock industry reacts to our customer’s demands as to how we produce our animals will be the key to our long-term participation and viability in feeding the world. The outlets that sell our food to the public listens to what the consumer has to say when they spend their food dollar. It would be equally wise for the livestock industry to listen to the desires of the folks that purchase our animals.

If you think about it, you and I are not that that different from our non-farm brethren. When we have the opportunity to have input on the goods and services we purchase or use, we take advantage of it. If you ask a builder about how he plans to construct an addition to your home and he is unwilling to provide the details you want, how would you feel? At the local school’s parent-teacher conference, if a parent questions the teaching methods used in a classroom are they wrong? Would you buy a car from a dealer who will not order a vehicle equipped the way you prefer?

How will the beef industry respond to the wants and desires of our current and potential customers? If we are unwilling to provide a potential buyer with the product that they want, who is at fault if the sale is not made? Is the feedlot that is willing to purchase calves that have been treated under a specific health program unfairly restricting the marketing opportunities of the cow-calf producer? Can the seedstock producer that prefers to raise high growth cattle expect to stay competitive in the market if his customer base prioritizes calving ease? Can a buyer that needs source and age verification of feeder cattle trust a producer that will not supply adequate documentation?

The livestock industry has a proven track record of efficient production that helps feed this country and large numbers around the world. Unfortunately, we not do enough to communicate with the public about how we care for our animals. We can no longer expect the public to simply trust the livestock industry to do the right thing. Small issues can become big problems if we do not address public concerns. I’m fairly sure that strongly resisting a company’s desire to monitor on-farm animal welfare practices is not the best way to instill confidence and trust with a major meat buyer and ultimately, the consumer. If we are not open and forthright about our production practices, how can we expect the buyer to purchase our product at any price, let alone a premium?

I understand the independent nature of the American farmer can create skepticism with a system where a public that is generally uninformed about agricultural production practices can have a large influence as to how we produce our animals. We may not like the fact that an outside party can have a large say as to how we conduct our business, but it would be foolhardy to dismiss their concerns as insignificant.

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