One of our biggest challenges in animal agriculture is connecting and communicating with consumers. We acknowledge it is an area of potential weakness for us because we feel far, far removed from the consumer.
If we are actually as far removed from the consumer as we think is neither here nor there – we perceive there is a gap, so for all intents and purposes there is a gap. Because there is a gap we work continually to try to bridge that gap.
Typically, our efforts fall into seemingly noble actions: “We need to educate consumers!” becomes a common battle cry. The problem, of course, lies in the underlying assumption that consumers are uneducated and that we have all the answers.
I was thinking about this last week when I read a beef industry blog that has a stated goal of educating “foodies” about the “real story” of where beef comes from.
Let’s digress a moment before I get into the tall grass on my issue today… I think sharing our story with consumers online is part of the cost of doing business today. It is imperative that we let our friends and neighbors see who we are and what we do for a living. For some general cautions, however, read my column at our sister publication Feedstuffs on the social media “Martyr Complex.”
My issue with this particular post (not with the underlying concept of the blog, necessarily), is that when attempting to “educate” consumers, we run into some obvious and unintended consequences: namely, that we work in a very complex and very technical business, and consumers may not have an interest in learning the complexities of that business.
In the instance that sparked my post on the topic, the beef blogger attempted to explain to consumers what happens when we take a steer to market from a business standpoint. Discussing the grading process, both yield and quality grade, is a somewhat complex topic, and I’ll admit that the explanation had me, as someone who’s been in and around the cattle business for 20 years, a bit confused myself.
Understand that my comments are intended to criticize the individual blogger, because folks responded very positively that the writer was sharing some of the “mysteries” of where food comes from and that is a good thing.
We have to understand and acknowledge that consumers don’t always want the details, a la the old saying about not wanting to know how sausage, bologna or hotdogs are really made. By first setting aside the assumption that consumers “must” be educated about our profession, we take the first step.
The preponderance of research suggests that consumers don’t care about the details as long as the food is tasty, affordable, convenient and safe. In fact, they typically take the safety aspect for granted because the U.S. is home to the most effective food safety infrastructure in the world.
While it is true that a vocal cabal of extremists play off of the general public’s unfamiliarity with agricultural practices to advance a radical agenda, we have to shift our own paradigm away from the “forced education” mentality into one of simply building relationships, one consumer at a time.
As Tommy Lee Jones said in the classic film Men In Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” He may have had a point, but we can’t allow ourselves as an industry to be dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.
Let’s stop pretending we have all the answers and that everyone out there needs to know how we make the sausage.