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Commentary: Clueless consumers

Commentary: Clueless Consumer

Dan Murphy  |  Updated: 06/12/2013

What’s the biggest contemporary problem for livestock producers?

That’s easy—if, like me, you’re an outsider looking in, that is.

The No. 1 problem is that even the most articulate producers spend way too much time talking to each other, or to scientists, veterinarians, policymakers and members of the trade media. The majority of those professionals have an understanding of the dynamic and the economics of livestock production; many, in fact, are more than equipped to engage in protracted, technical discussions about inside-the-industry issues that when “translated” to a lay audience are ripe for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Take the case of one Jeremy Ranck, a 30-year-old Pennsylvania hog farmer and subject of an insightful profile in the Des Moines Register as World Pork Expo gets underway in Iowa’s capital this weekend.

“Any farm, that’s your life, that’s your passion,” Ranck was quoted as saying. “We do everything we can to have the best production in crops, the best production in hogs. It is very frustrating when there are activist groups and social media blitzes of blatant lies.”

That quote could probably have come from any of thousands of producers across the country, and indeed in its essence, Ranck’s observation informs a whole lot of conversation among attendees at virtually any industry trade show or conference I’ve ever attended.

That’s the problem: When producers try to state what they believe to be the obvious advantages of modern production, consumers come away with a far different interpretation—they buy the lies.

Just don’t do it

Nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than in debates over the use of antibiotics.

For more than a decade now, consumer groups and industry critics have joined forces with an activist segment of the scientific community to decry what they deem the “overuse” of antibiotics in animal agriculture, blaming it (and the producers who have embraced such inputs) as the culprit in the rising incidence of antibiotic-resistant microbial pathogens that are plaguing human medicine.

Here’s the problem: The concepts of dosage, specificity and prophylaxis escape 99.99% of the public when they happen upon media coverage of the antibiotics issue. To most people, the activist mantra—an anti-Nike slogan that boils down to “Just stop it”—makes perfect sense.

People fail to recognize that if one of their children develops an infection, they’re demanding that their doctor prescribe antibiotics—the connection with veterinary medicine never occurs to them.

Likewise, arguments that the industry’s well-intentioned spokespeople make about sub-therapeutic usage keeping animal healthier, and thus limiting the need for more powerful antibiotics (the kinds that cause resistance problems), simply don’t resonate with shoppers pushing their carts through the local supermarket.

There was a great example of that in the newspaper article. Ranck described how he and his dad (who also raises pigs) removed an old barn two years ago and replaced it with a new $500,000 steel-framed facility. The investment resulted in more uniform growth rates, fewer bouts of illness and death among the animals, and thus a sharp drop in overall antibiotic use.

If you’re a producer, your head’s nodding. Of course—that’s why the industry’s gone to controlled housing and more sophisticated management, you’re saying to yourself—as if that settles any arguments.

But what do consumers think when they read about that anecdote? That a scenic old barn—the kind we love to spot on our infrequent drives through “the countryside”—was torn down, and now the poor pigs are trapped in a steel-and-concrete prison, never seeing the light of day and spending their waking hours crammed into tiny, sterile pens.

The notion that producers are “pumping pigs full of antibiotics” because they’re crammed into crowded, unhealthy housing actually makes a lot of sense—if you’ve never been on a farm, never seen the inside of a modern hog barn and don’t have a clue what animal husbandry’s all about.

Which describes pretty much 9 out of every 10 Americans.

The solution is twofold: One, open up those barns. Show people what goes on inside and the clean, sanitary environment in which pigs are raised. Yes, that involves issues of biosecurity, but under controlled conditions, the precautions that have to be taken before people enter a barn help underscore, not undermine, the message that modern housing isn’t dark and dirty at all.

And two, more farmers and producers need to speak up, along with fewer scientist and spokespeople. Industry experts are important voices in policymaking debates, but rarely can such folks communicate effectively with people who have basically zero technical or scientific education.

What the industry needs is more messaging that reflects how ad agencies handle copy: Aim it at seven-year olds, and you’ll be right on target.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

KSK CHRISTMAS
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