Consumers Still Think "Factory Farms" Are Evil

Prairie Gleanings

A recent Facebook discussion confirms consumers still have little faith in production ag. How can we change that?

Published on: March 29, 2012
The names of this blog have been changed to protect the innocent. Otherwise, this is an accurate portrayal of a series of true events.

As I was donating blood last week, I noticed Ellen’s monologue poked fun at the recent pink slime reports. I cued up Tweetdeck and typed something to the effect of, “Do we really think Americans would eat less pink slime if it was labeled?” I went on to say there are multiple instances of reports “revealing” what’s in some of our favorite foods, such as chicken McNuggets and hot dogs. To my knowledge, it hasn’t negatively affected sales.

Perhaps my blood circulating through an apheresis machine robbed me of my ability to filter my social media thoughts. In a fit of madness, I posted it to my Facebook page and Twitter.

You see, I started down the road of food discussions on FB about a year ago. I quickly found that my friends know very little about food production, but have disproportionately large opinions on the matter. Nearly everyone has seen one of those faux documentaries, such as Food Inc. As a result, they’re all experts, despite the fact they’ve never set foot on a farm.

Anyhow, the debate began. After about five posts, “Alice” brought up that she will now be grinding all of her own meat from local sources at the farmers market. “Charles”, a farmer friend, quickly asked if local means better for you. The debate spiraled downward from there, revealing consumers’ ignorance, yet passionate willingness to defend their opinions.

The low point came once the discussion turned toward animal welfare. “Charlotte” asked if I schedule my farm interviews in advance. She thinks that perhaps livestock operations are simply hiding the animal abusers; and I would see a much different industry if I simply popped in, unannounced. Charles was outraged at the complete lack of trust the comment showed. I thought it was humorous and responded that I don’t think anyone is hiding “mean Uncle Bill the animal abuser” in a shed behind the barn.

The discussion definitely caused a spike in blood pressure. However, it did reinforce several key points.

1. These people are voters. HSUS and PETA know that, and that’s why they are so effective. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel (pun intended).

2. Consumers trust farmers who go to farmers markets because they can interact with them. We need to do a better job putting production farmers in front of consumers. Illinois Farm Families is a great start at this. We need to keep it up. People are interested in where their food comes from. We need to show them.

3. Despite all the accusations, the consumer pocketbook still rules the day. I call this the Walmart syndrome. People love to call it evil, yet they continue to shop there.

4. It gets scary when we realize key point #1 could supersede #3. If we don’t remain vigilant, the vocal minority could get exactly what they want in terms of meat – an extremely low supply of uber-expensive, albeit “local and environmentally responsible”, animal protein.

5. Consumers have no idea how the production and processing chain works. When they see Tyson on a package of pork, they assume Tyson raised it, killed it and packaged it. We need to do a better job of explaining the process. “Charlotte” is convinced contract production is evil because a local farmer griped about the process to her. Not understanding the process at all, she naturally made the assumption it’s evil.