That was the overwhelming message to those attending the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture held in Chicago recently. Participants included agricultural producers, food distributors and restaurant and grocery store supply chain managers from across North America. The conference goal was to identify ways to build consumer trust for food animal agriculture.

Brad Hennen, a farrow-to-wean producer from Ghent, MN, attending on behalf of the Minnesota Pork Board, used the event to network among the diverse group and improve communication skills when dealing with the consuming public.

Having recently participated in a Minnesota Pork Board-sponsored promotion in an urban setting, Hennen had first-hand experience with the types of questions his non-farm customers were asking. “During an event at the Minnesota Zoo, I fielded questions ranging from, ‘why do you feed so many chemicals,’ to ‘why do you use gestation stalls?’ Though challenging, those are the questions we want to have asked of us when we have the ability to answer,” he states.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the pork industry right now is how to establish lines of communication with the people who are buying our product. We need to find open lines of communication because there is a huge disconnect between the producer and the consumer. I would argue that it doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the producer when we are doing most of our communicating through the media,” he says.

Social Media

A key message at the conference was that more and more communication about the meat industry is happening through social media. Producers need to be part of the conversation before disaster strikes.

“The explosion of social media has driven food system change like never before,” says Terry Fleck, CFI executive director. In an attempt to join the conversation, some large food production companies are hiring full-time social media employees. “We have come to understand that we need to build trust with our customers. Up until 15 years ago, we didn’t understand the impact animal rights activists could have,” says Craig Hunter, vice president of poultry operations for Burnbrae Farms, Ltd., a large Canadian egg producer.

David Pelzer, senior vice president for industry image and relations for Dairy Management, Inc., the organization that manages the U.S. dairy checkoff, has been working hard to get dairy producers involved in day-to-day conversations with their customers through social media. Pelzer emphasizes a need for transparency, public assurance, business continuity and two-way conversations with customers. Taking a “just-sit-them-down-and-educate-them” approach does not work, he says. Producers must listen to what their customers are saying vs. concentrating on delivering a specific message.

People in the 18- to 34-year old age group get much of their information through social media, so it is important to be plugged in to what consumers are saying, Pelzer reinforces. Agriculture needs to get stakeholders involved in the conversations.

“Build an army of people moving forth in their social media channels, then start a conversation,” he advises. “We don’t want to have to play defense all of the time; we need to continue to tell a good, consistent story.”

Listening, as opposed to hammering a set message, is a crucial part of the strategy when it comes to reaching consumers, especially in social media, agrees David Fikes, director of consumer and community affairs for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “There’s a reason it’s called social media. It’s engaging in a relationship. If someone comes up to you and only wants to talk about themselves, how long would you talk with them? It’s about engaging in a conversation,” he explains.

Support Food Chain Partners

Though pork producers may feel they are the primary victims of negative messages in the media and among some consumers, such as the use of gestation stalls, it is important to remember that retail distributors, institutions and restaurant chains are on the front lines as they present pork products to the consuming public.

And, it is important to recognize that activist groups buy shares of stock in companies so they can offer their opinions and cast votes in shareholder meetings.

“Sometimes a target has been put on our backs (in the restaurant or food distribution sector) to get to another industry,” explains M.J. Shult, director of technical services and quality assurance for Brinker International. “Activists put a black eye on brands that are in front of consumers in order to go back up the chain and have an impact.” Brinker International owns the Chili’s and Maggiano’s restaurant chains. The company’s 1,500 restaurants are located in 32 countries and serve a million people throughout the world every day.

When customers ask hard questions, the food distribution industry needs to be able to provide solid answers. “We really like science. We think good science can answer many of these questions (that activists raise) for us, but science isn’t enough,” Shult says. “The best science can’t sway people if it isn’t put forward in a way that people can understand.”

Pelzer points out that producers tend to speak a completely different language from the consumers. “As an industry, we haven’t been very effective at communicating with our consumers. Consumers don’t care if the industry or their production methods are ‘efficient,’ for example,” he says. Producers’ messages must resonate with consumers.

Beef Industry Example

The importance of word choices is reinforced by the response to the term “pink slime” (lean finely textured beef) and the negative backlash the beef industry experienced recently. Charlie Arnot, CFI chief executive officer, references a recent qualitative survey among retailer and restaurant procurement and social responsibility opinion leaders.

One survey respondent from the retail grocery industry said, “On the lean finely textured beef (LFTB) issue, in all of our major markets, we had competitors who were able to say they’ve never had it in their ground beef and never will. Here we (the retail grocer) are aligned with the (beef) industry on the issue and we ended up suffering as a result.”

FMI’s Fikes says retailers discovered that consumers felt they had been deceived with the LFTB issue. “It’s not good when the public feels they’ve been deceived,” he says.

Retailer Perspective

Offering additional insight from the food retailer’s perspective, Fike’s main message is that producers and food marketers need to be on the same team.

“I need to be your best advocate so I can sell your product,” he says. To that end, FMI has put together an animal welfare advisory committee and an animal agriculture task force in an effort to deliver positive, species-specific messages about best management practices.

Third-party verification, through programs such as the Pork Quality Assurance program, may need to receive more emphasis in the future, he says.

“Animal welfare issues are only going to get more prevalent. We have a whole generation that does not know where food comes from and, sometimes, it seems they are all out there looking for an issue to get up in arms about. Consumer perception is reality. Producers and retailers need to be on the same team because we (retailers) facilitate the relationships between the consumer and the farmer,” Fikes says.

Gaining Consumer Trust

“There is a need to help our farm constituents realize that this will be a generational challenge,” Arnot explains. “We have to engage immediately on these issues and start having conversations, but we aren’t going to solve this situation overnight.”

As a first step, he tells producers to listen to what consumers are saying. “When you hear comments that make you uncomfortable, please don’t dismiss them.”

Engaging urban consumers through Minnesota Pork Board promotion programs, Hennen knows first-hand what is on some consumers’ minds. Knowing what people are thinking helps create an opportunity to help counter misleading messages.

Hunter perhaps summarizes the situation best when he notes that it all comes down to communicating with consumers and addressing questions before a crisis hits. “Farmers have been doing a good job; we just need to be able to effectively communicate it,” he says. 

 Lora Berg is a freelance writer from Lakeville, MN.