Beef producers need to find ways to tell consumers their story
May 26, 2017
With an estimated 94 percent of U.S. consumers having zero connection to agriculture, producers may have to get creative educating them about the food they eat.
"They don't even have a tie through an uncle or grandfather that is still back on the family farm or ranch," Kacy Atkinson, an agriculture advocate said. "They are so far removed from what we do, they feel no connection to it."
U.S. farmers and ranchers represent only 2 percent of the U.S. population, and less than 1 percent of producers make a full-time living on the farm. "It is no longer about how food tastes," Atkinson said. "Consumers want to know how raising food impacts the environment and how sustainable they feel production practices and raising a particular food product are."
Other consumer concerns range from animal welfare practices engaged in by that industry, food safety, and nutrition to how workers are treated, use of artificial ingredients and product packaging. "As consumers, we believe we are healthy from the inside out," Atkinson said. "The food we put into our body has a direct correlation to how healthy we are outside."
Consumers want to know the story of where their food came from. "They want to be able to walk that hamburger they are eating all the way back to the ranch it originated from," she said. "They want to know the story of that ranch, and how that animal was raised."
Through beef advocacy spots Atkinson has taken part in on radio and in the newspaper, she has found a connection with the consumer is important. "As beef producers, we need to find a way to connect with consumers in a way they understand," she said. "I use the seven elements of trust, which are motivation, disclosing positive and negative information, consumer participation, relevance, clarity, credibility and accentuate," she said.
Atkinson uses the connection of feeding the ones she loves U.S. beef as a way to relate to consumers. "If I had children, I would talk about them, and how assuring it is to feed them food produced here in the U.S." she said.
Eating food grown here is important to consumers. Atkinson shared the results of a survey that shows 81 percent of consumers want food that was raised in the U.S., and 69 percent want to be able to trace it back to the actual U.S. farm. "There may not be a more picky country on Earth than the U.S. about what food we eat because we have one of the most plentiful, and cheapest, food supplies in the world," Atkinson said. "There are 43 million Americans facing food insecurity, but the rest of us can walk into a grocery store and make choices about what we put into our carts."
A 2011 Beef Quality Audit noted the beef industry is not very transparent, and doesn't do a good job telling its story or educating consumers about how certain production practices are done and why. "As an industry, we are going to have to decide how to become more transparent," Atkinson said. "We have to figure out how to educate consumers about what impacts quality, wholesomeness and safety of beef, and assure consumers we are not the bad guy."
"When my parents started in the cattle business, it was enough to just raise a good calf," Atkinson saud. "They didn't have to worry about the market. As long as they raised good beef, and got it to market, consumers would want it and buy it without question or hesitation. As long as it tasted good, they would continue to put in on their plate.
"We no longer live in that world, and I don't think we ever will again," she said. "In this new world, agriculture has changed so much that we just can't bury our heads in the sand and continue to do things the way we've always done them. We can't power our way through this."
For a number of years, farmers and ranchers were proud of the fact that they were feeding the world. However, Atkinson shared consumer research from a national organization, the Center of Food Integrity. "The lowest concern among people in the U.S. is that we're feeding the world," she said. "They don't feel it is a justification for certain production practices. They care about feeding people inside the U.S., but not outside the U.S. borders," she said.
Research from this company also shows that consumers hold food companies responsible for the food they eat. Because of this, Atkinson said each company is developing their own set of production standards for animal welfare. "Companies are responding to pressure put on by activists and groups with their own agendas by making decisions that will trickle down and affect us," she said. "As a producer, we don't always know which company will end up with our beef. We need to ask ourselves how it is even possible to meet the (animal welfare) requirements for every company." ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.