I have this vision of a farmer standing in his field with his hands thrown up in exasperation and his face tilted to the sky. The caption reads, “Would you people make up your minds!” This is the kind of frustration many in agriculture feel today as we continue to get very mixed signals from consumers, the media, and activist groups. In recent years, consumers, food retailers, and activist groups have been calling for more transparency, traceability, and sustainability in food production. So farmers have made efforts to provide these. Yet, when farmers let folks see what is going on in the barn or the field, the reaction is less than positive.
Two years ago, consumers got a look at how hamburger was made. They reacted very negatively to the use of “lean, finely textured beef. As a result, processors stopped using the perfectly safe product. Now that the television cameras are no longer watching how hamburger is made, it is being reintroduced and most people are happy in their ignorance.
When dairy farmers show consumers how milk is produced by separating the calf from the cow shortly after birth so that her milk can be used for dairy products, they say this is cruel treatment of the mother cow. When livestock producers start using some of the tremendous amount of food that consumers waste to safely feed animals and keep it from clogging up landfills, activists freak out and accuse producers of feeding garbage to produce meat.
Retailers call for traceability but, at the same time, don’t want animals kept in barns with carefully controlled feed but rather let free to wander all over creation eating anything they want. Environmentalists call on farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers, but neighbors complain when organic fertilizer (manure) is spread on a field.
The fact is most consumers don’t really want to know all the details on how their food is produced. Most just want the comfort and assurance that the food is safe and produced with the same values they have. I am leaving out the professional activists who make money by stirring up fear about food and filling social media channels with lies and venomous rhetoric. Many consumers would not mind a peek behind the barn door, but just a short one.
We in agriculture must manage the exposure we offer consumers. Maple Leaf Farms and The Pig Adventure do this very well. Visitors get to see actual dairy and pork operations presented in a way that is truthful and authentic, but not overwhelming. A presentation that is revealing, yet at the same time, comforting and reassuring.
At the root is the issue is trust. Some people trust farmers; some people trust the government; while activists only trust themselves. President Barack Obama wants to create a new government agency dedicated to keeping the nation’s food safe. The proposal consists of consolidating the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and all of FDA’s food safety oversight into one new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The new agency also would coordinate with state and local health departments, a job that is now mostly handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As we have seen with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, this reshuffling of the federal bureaucracy only results in more red tape, more federal spending, and less progress toward solving the problem. Until consumers decide who they are going to trust on food issues, farmers will continue to be asking, “Do they or don’t they want to know?”
By Gary Truitt