Blogger tackles consumer questions about LFTB, BSE
Anne Burkholder wears many hats. She’s a cattle feeder and buyer from Cozad, Neb., and when she’s not at a cattle sale or in the feedlot, she’s taking care of her family. Being a part of a family-owned cattle operation, Burkholder realized that the media was often spreading misinformation about her livelihood, and as a wife and mother, she wanted to level with consumers and reassure them that beef is safe and nutritious, and is produced by families who care.
In May 2011, Burkholder teamed up with the beef checkoff program to launch her own blog, “The Feed Yard Foodie,” to correct these misconceptions and make connections with beef customers. Although she maintains a busy lifestyle, she has carved out time to write on her blog, where she has made relationships with thousands of consumers across the U.S. It’s because of her loyalty to her readers that she was able to tackle the beef industry’s latest headaches – the controversy surrounding lean finely textured beef (LFTB) and April’s BSE case in California, the fourth in U.S. history.
Burkholder, whose blog can be found at http://FeedyardFoodie.wordpress.com, shared her experiences of debunking the “pink slime” and “mad cow disease” myths in the media and offered advice for producers to follow her lead.
“Several loyal Feed Yard Foodie followers asked me questions about LFTB right as the story broke on a national scale,” she said. “Quite honestly, I knew nothing about it, so I had to educate myself so that I could educate my readers. I wrote a series of posts talking about hamburger, food safety, LFTB and the Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) facility.”
Her posts surrounding the pink slime controversy were very popular, reaching more than 12,000 readers. Her blog was even picked up by a prestigious blogging group, BlogHer, which reaches women bloggers, the perfect demographic to explain about the safety and wholesomeness of beef.
“The more that I learned about LFTB, the more excitement I felt about the product; LFTB is lean, nutritious, safe, and environmentally friendly,” she said. “The biggest lesson for me was realizing how important consumer education was; my readers trusted me and became supporters of the product as I blogged about it, even though the national media was so negative on the product. I was a trusted-source of information, and that was a great feeling. I think that this is a great example of how important reaching out to consumers is. If a relationship already exists, there is trust which will override sensational reporting. We need a lot more relationships with consumers in the future so that this type of situation does not occur again!”
Yet, who has the time to blog? With the many responsibilities with family and livestock to take care of, why make the effort to share your story online?
“The consumer is one of the most important people that I interact with each day, as it’s consumers who buy my products,” she said. “I raise food animals, so my job and my farm revolve around the consumer’s purchasing-loyalty to my beef. Without them, there would be no reason to raise cattle. As important as the facts are, personally relating to your consumer trumps everything else. Science is vitally important to raising safe and healthy beef, but personal trust is what makes a loyal beef consumer. The relationship between the rancher and the consumer is what builds trust and that is the cornerstone to sustainability.”
It’s the trust Burkholder has earned through her year of blogging that enabled her to tackle another obstacle in the beef industry – the BSE case in California.
“Because of my experience with LFTB, I wrote about the BSE news just as the story broke,” she said. “Again, I got a sense from my followers that they trusted the information that I gave them. This allowed them to remain confident beef consumers. Some of my readers asked some really hard questions, but we had good discussion and the bottom-line is that they trusted me.”
So, where do producers start? How can they reach consumers remotely from the ranch? Burkholder offered some advice.
“There are many ways that ranchers can tell their story – from answering questions and talking about their farms at the coffee shop or at church fellowship on Sunday mornings, to volunteering to speak in their local schools about raising cattle and the nutritional benefits of beef,” she recommended. “Cattlemen are passionate about what they do every day; we need to channel that passion into a positive and proactive consumer outreach initiative – that starts in our own communities and grows outward from there. The important thing to remember is to always have a respectful conversation, listening to understand and using empathy to realize the concerns that consumers have. Then respond to those concerns in a positive and effective way.”
It can be difficult to find the right words to address consumer concerns, but the beef checkoff’s Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) Program, an online education course that trains ranchers to become spokespersons for the industry, will add polish to every producer’s message. The six courses focus on consumer points of interest including: nutrition, food safety, environment, sustainability, the beef checkoff, the beef production chain from pasture-to-plate and more. Once the course has been completed, MBA graduates become a part of an alumni program, where they are kept up-to-date on issues facing the industry, including negative pieces in mainstream media and consumer questions that need to be answered. To get involved, check out http://www.Beef.org/MastersOfBeefAdvocacy.aspx.
Reflecting on the LFTB and BSE news, Burkholder thinks it will take some time for the beef industry to recover.
“It is going to take a long time to get over the LFTB controversy; we, as an industry, did too little, too late,” she admitted. “We have millions of pounds of safe and healthy beef that the consumer has decided that they do not want; what a waste of food resources! I hope that eventually we can educate the public on LFTB and help them to see what a great product it is, but I believe that will take a long time. We need to proactively tell the consumer about the beef products that we make. We never did that with LFTB! We need to proactively educate regarding our products.”
“I think that the industry responded much more openly and in a united manner regarding the BSE news,” she added. “We came forward early with a good unified message and proactively reached out to both the media and consumers. Subsequently, the BSE case has not had near the impact on consumer demand for beef.”
Looking to the future, it’s no longer good enough to rely on others to respond to these issues; every rancher must stand up and take part, said Burkholder.
“Moving forward, it is so important for beef producers to not only be educated on issues that relate to our products, but also to come forward with a unified voice to explain those products,” she said. “Social media allows us a good outlet for getting our message to consumers; however, in the case of LFTB, it crippled us because we did not respond quickly enough. Ideally, I think that we need to educate the consumer about new technology as we develop it, so that they can feel comfortable with the use of it to grow high quality beef using fewer resources. The consumer only fears our technology when we fail to explain it to them. I believe this to be the case no matter if you are talking about LFTB, growth promotants or any other technology that I use every day to make safe and healthy beef. If we have trust, and if we take the time to explain the technology, most consumers will remain confident in our beef products.”
Whether it’s starting a blog or engaging in a conversation at church, it begins with relationships. Make connections with consumers – whether it’s in town or around the world – to maintain beef demand, reinforce a positive image of healthy beef and reinstate confidence in the families who produce it.
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