Last year I attended the Colorado Governor's agriculture forum in Denver. This annual all day event features speakers and workshops on a large variety of ag topics. The highlight of the event for me was the consumer panel. Fifteen consumers were randomly selected by mail and paid to sit in on a panel and answer questions from a moderator, all in front of the audience of over 500 people. Some of the questions that were asked: What does organic mean? What does natural mean? Is natural or organic better? Would you pay more for organic or natural? Why or why not? What are GMO's? Are GMO's good for you or bad for you? What is humane treatment of animals? It this important to you?
The panel that was selected was fairly mixed to represent the Denver area demographic. A few obvious observations by all in the audience:
1. The younger the consumer, the more likely they were interested in buying organic, natural, GMO free food items.
2. Consumers are very confused about what organic, natural, GMO free, humanely raised and other common food industry terms mean.
3. Consumers base their opinion about these terms on what they have learned by friends or social media.
A month after this event, I attended the National Grocers Association Food show. Their keynote speaker was Eric Qualman, author of "Digital Leader" and a noted national speaker on the influence and use of social media. After hearing Eric and reading his book, I am convinced that the entire food industry is losing the information war. Consumers are bombarded with social media messages, many shrouding their views about food production with partial truths. For example, one post I viewed stated that all chickens and turkeys are inhumanely slaughtered and the video file attached showed an animal being scalded alive. So, the video narrator concluded, by eating less poultry we can stop the inhumane treatment of animals.
What consumers are NOT seeing is that most animals are handled and slaughtered using humane methods. This is because most meat plants have a 'closed door' policy and are not transparent about their practices. They are so afraid of the hidden camera and being the next featured HSUS video, that they have chosen to not risk it. Consumers thus believe that meat plants must be hiding something. Meat plants, you need to open your doors, produce more videos, accept more plant tours, be 100% transparent and show your customers that you are treating animals humanely.
But, you may ask, what if they are not?
I have to say, that any companies that condone the inhumane treatment of animals should be forced out of business. Having grown up on a farm, raising and slaughtering my own animals for our family, I know that it is very possible to treat animals humanely that are used for our food supply. I encourage everyone to read "the Compassionate Carnivore" by Catherine Friend, especially those of you that believe that you cannot eat meat because of production and slaughter methods.
So I close with a two-fold message:
1. For consumers - don't believe everything your read on social media about food, what is good, what is bad.
2. Meat plants - you need to be more proactive about getting your positive message out. Unless you are hiding something.