Once upon a time, we were called farmers or ranchers.
Then, we learned the art of public relations and we became producers. When our enemies also learned the art of public relations, our larger brethren became evil factory megafarms, though we weren’t sure why being compared to a productive engine like a factory was a bad thing.
Because the meat we produced necessitated the death of animals raised for that purpose, we realized that good producers shouldn’t send their animals to a slaughterhouse, they should send them to a meat processing facility to be harvested.
One day we woke up to realize that our neighbors, and even our enemies, were on Facebook, and that consumers didn’t trust producers who operated factory farms and sent their animals to be harvested anymore.
And we weren’t sure what to do.
Last week I met a young woman named Megan Brown. Megan is a fifth-generation farmer from Chico, California. Like many of us she has a job off the farm, and like many of us she is online talking about her passion for food and farming.
When Megan’s family hired a local company to bring its mobile custom exempt slaughter unit to their farm to process a steer they had raised, she took the opportunity to produce a photo essay on her blog to expose her readers to the realities of where meat comes from.
In the same spirit as Oprah Winfrey’s look inside a Cargill meat plant in Colorado earlier this year, Megan wanted to be transparent, and educate folks who were interested about how meat makes it from the farm to the table.
Her decision to do so was… to put it mildly, controversial. You can read more about Megan’s story at our sister publication Feedstuffs, as well as listen to my interview with Megan about her experience.
The interesting part of the tale is what my hero Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.”
Well beyond the initial discourse over her decision to post photos of an animal at the end of its life and the transition from live animal to dressed carcass, the situation spawned an online discussion of the term slaughter versus the euphemism “harvest.”
People have passionate opinions, to say the least. For the most part, they fall into one of three camps.
First are the people who say we should never use the word slaughter, because the term and the pictures it may conjure in the mind’s eye are potentially damaging to consumer trust and confidence in farmers.
Second are those who say we produce animals for the purpose of eating their meat, and we should be transparent and unafraid of admitting what we do and how we do it.
Finally are those who are somewhere in the middle, who can reason that it may be offensive to use such a bold word to describe the end of a food animal’s life, but that it shouldn’t be forbidden per se in our industry.
As a student of advertising and public relations, I understand where these people come from. Words have meanings, and consequences. Consider any one of a dozen words in the common vernacular that are negatively “charged” for a number of reasons, and consider when, where, and how you use them.
The bottom line is that most people alter their language somewhat in consideration of their audience. You don’t speak to your younger brother the same we you do to your grandmother, and you don’t tell the same jokes around the campfire as you do at Sunday supper.
Here’s the rub: consumers aren’t dumb (generally speaking). They may be uninformed, they may be uneducated, but they have a finally-tuned BS-meter, and understand when they’re being snowed by a PR job.
It’s for this reason that we have to find the right balance between honesty and diplomacy. We can’t whitewash what we do for a living, and we should not be afraid to admit that we raise food animals for their intended purpose: to produce food.
On the other hand, we should understand that no small amount of consumer research has proven that 80-90% of consumers really don’t care where their food comes from, so long as it is safe, tasty, and relatively inexpensive.
Rather than fight over the 10-20% on the edges, let’s keep our eyes on the prize and super-serve the 80% in the middle.
And, by the way, quit beating each other up over how we communicate to the 10-20% who actually read our blog posts and Twitter feeds.