The "fear of what we don't know" is a factor when consumers decide whether to purchase beef at the meat counter.
"Chicken wears the 'halo' of being healthy," said Daren Williams, executive director of communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "While consumers like beef, they have perceptions about beef production that put up barriers in their decisions."
Williams addressed the 2013 Nebraska Beef Summit, hosted by the Nebraska Cattlemen and coordinated by seniors in the UNL Beef Industry Scholars Program. Williams said three-fourths of consumers surveyed said they eat beef every week, at least one to three times. But they prefer chicken, those same surveys show.
"Consumers aren't out there trying to learn how beef is produced," he said.
Williams believes they have been influenced by animal rights groups and other anti-meat activists, even by information from some retail outlets like Chipotle Mexican Grill. Campaigns such as Meatless Monday and media reports that beef production is unhealthy in the diet and harmful to the environment play a factor in purchasing decisions.
He referred to other surveys that show 75% of Americans look favorably on U.S. farmers, while only 5% look unfavorably on them. The other 20% indicated no opinion.
"To me that says consumers like farmers, but not necessarily the way you do things," Williams says. "That's the 'fear factor.' That's why we have to bridge this information and knowledge gap."
In his career, Williams has trained thousands of people, including farmers and ranchers, chefs, dieticians, university experts and food company executives, to talk to consumers about food production and safety, nutrition and environmental stewardship.
He has conducted that training through the beef checkoff's Masters of Beef Advocacy program, a nationwide grassroots network. A number of Nebraska producers and state beef interests have gone through the MBA training so that they can inform consumers and media about the productivity of today's producers and their care for animals and the environment.
He called for more producers to get involved in the MBA program.
Williams pointed out that 97% of beef operations in the United States are family owned and operated.
"This country produces 20% of the world's beef with only 7% of the world's cattle," he said. "That's a testament to our productivity and stewardship. We raise our cattle on land not suitable for crop production."