The industry must look beyond the current crisis to assure its future
Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.
The Canadian pork industry’s battle for survival is well documented within the pages of the agricultural press and increasingly in the mainstream media. Having endured three years of losses, there was hope that the usual summer price rally would bring some relief, but this promise of salvation evaporated as the H1N1 flu outbreak spread around the world, reducing demand for pork. Coupled with a strengthening Canadian dollar and the effects of the U. S.’s country-of-origin labelling legislation, which has had a far more damaging effect than many people hoped, “swine flu” was the last straw. With producers and their organizations desperately lobbying politicians, holding rallies and appealing for public support, it is impossible to predict the outcome, and in particular the shape and size of the industry, when the dust settles.
The industry’s resources are obviously focused on the immediate threat to its survival, which is as it should be. However, there is another more insidious threat that has been creeping up on the pork industry and agriculture in general. Consumers have become increasingly mistrustful of farmers and food processors. Their knowledge of how food is produced has declined and they are becoming more and more influenced by pressure groups critical of the farming and food industries.
This process has been going on for many years and is certainly more advanced in Europe, where I spent most of my working life. It’s an aspect of our industry that I find fascinating, but worrying. What set me thinking about it again was a whole clutch of news items that surfaced in recent months, which suggest the food and farming industry is rapidly losing control of the debate about food production. Maybe this is not surprising following a number of food scares in this country and the U. S. over the last 12 months, notably listeria in processed pork products, salmonella in peanut products and now influenza, even though there is no health risk from pork. It’s worth looking at some of the headlines to understand what is happening.
CONSUMERS ARE CONCERNED
A recent survey in the U. S. by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that less than 20 per cent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy for themselves and their families. Sixty per cent are concerned about food safety, and 63 per cent are knowledgeable about the content of the food they buy, says the report. Eightythree per cent of respondents were able to name a food product that was recalled in the past two years due to contamination or other safety concerns.
Nearly half of respondents (46 per cent) named peanut butter as the most recognizable recall. Spinach came in a distant second, with 15 per cent awareness nearly two years after the incident.
“Across the board, consumers are demanding transparency and more information about the food they purchase to ensure their safety and that of their families,” says the report.
The Internet is increasingly becoming the battleground for public opinion and it’s obvious that agriculture is losing that battle. According to new research by U. S.-based online marketing and public relations agency v-Fluence Interactive, when consumers go online to look for information about the production practices that put meat and dairy products on their kitchen tables, they are most likely to see the kind of one-sided content featured in the TV documentary “Food Inc.,” at the expense of content reflecting the points of view of most conventional producers or major food brands.
“Our research shows very few conventional producer groups or well-known food brands have a presence in the content that most frequently shows up when consumers search on these food production topics,” says Randy Krotz, senior vice-president and head of v-Fluence’s Food and Agriculture practice. “And when they do, it’s more likely because organic competitors or animal rights advocates are talking about them in a critical manner.”
There is a whole plethora of websites produced by pressure groups related to animal welfare, food safety and the environment. I was recently alerted to a new one called letsactnow.org,which appeals to people to stop eating meat because of the impact of meat production on global warming. It’s obvious that the conveniently anonymous people responsible for the site are vegetarians, but to the general public concerned about global warming, the messages could be appealing.
As this type of organization so often does, they quote information from sources with credibility, ranging from Albert Einstein and Al Gore to the UN. Indeed, the cornerstone of its attack on meat eating is a UN report, published in 2006, that says raising animals for food generates 40 per cent more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trucks, SUVs, trains, planes and ships in the world combined. The real agenda is revealed on the page “Our animal friends,” which is a diatribe against the meat industry. “How could we be a nation that loves animals while we continue to endorse the horrors of factory farms and slaughterhouses through our food choices?” it asks.
I could go on, but you will have got the message by now. The livestock industry is under attack from a wide range of interest groups, often well funded and influential. When the financial crises in the pork and beef industries are resolved, they and the livestock industry in general must put more resources into providing more balanced information to consumers in order to improve their trust. Perhaps, if we’d have been better at this in the past, the impact of influenza on pork consumption might have been minimal.