Which Came First? The Chicken Or The Emotive Egg Exposé?

eggs-croppedThe award for the most emotive news story of today must surely go to the Guardian for its latest “comment is free” (i.e. op-ed) article on egg production.The article is rife with the usual motifs regarding the alleged horrors of modern so-called factory farming and pseudo-outrage at the fact that free-range hens don’t appear to exist in a sunlit utopia akin to an avian Club 18-30’s holiday with umbrella drinks on tap and hourly wing-tip massages for every bird. I’d like to try and suggest that it’s entirely coincidental that this article and the associated “exposé” from the animal rights charity Viva was released, not only on Pancake Day but on the day that newspapers report on the need to house free-range birds due to bird flu (which in itself in interesting given that these biosecurity regulations have been in place for some weeks now), but that would be stretching coincidence so far it would reach almost to John O’Groats.

Strangely, it appears that the author is under the impression that laying hens could have a variety of productive and meaningful roles within society if they weren’t doomed to suffer in the purported “squalid hellholes”. As birds are described as “…only existing so their eggs can be taken and sold for profit”, the mind wonders, at least momentarily, to the potential careers that they could instead undertake. Perhaps the NHS crisis could be alleviated by a flock of egg-straordinary hen-care assistants who would soothe fevered brows with a flap of their wings, or the noise at Prime Minister’s Question Time could be augmented by the clucks from Members of Poultry-ment? Yet I digress…

To be fair to the author, most of the facts in the article are at least partially true – regrettably, we don’t have reliable egg-sexing technology yet, so male chicks are euthanised soon after birth. While this isn’t a palatable or pleasant fact, there’s simply no other use for millions of male birds that don’t grow into table chickens as efficiently as their boiler counterparts. Fortunately for the activist groups, the concept of euthanising fluffy chicks hits us hard – after all, what is more vulnerable than a newborn bird?  Yet, given our growing chicken consumption, few of us appear to have the same reservations about a broiler being swiftly dispatched and ending up wrapped in plastic in a supermarket fridge.

Beak-trimming is also difficult to justify to the consumer. Yet research at Bristol University and other academic institutions has shown that hens in non-beak-trimmed flocks suffer serious injuries and a far higher rate of mortality than in conventional flocks. It’s clear that this issue has to be addressed and may be alleviated with appropriate changes in management and hen environment, yet this does not happen overnight nor without a significant economic cost to the producer, which is then passed on to the consumer.

It’s the emotive language that really irks. I do wonder how charities like Viva, PETA, Compassion in World Farming and others would fare if, like the scientific community, they had to submit their reports for peer-review, undergo the rigours of scientific publication and back up claims with citations or original data. Phrases like “…truths the industry don’t want you to know” and “…exploited for as long as they’re profitable until their own day of slaughter comes” are hard for anybody to read, let alone those who aren’t familiar with poultry production.

Yet there’s a huge difference between “truths the industry don’t want you to know” and questions that have never occurred to the majority of people. I know absolutely nothing about the dental industry or the manufacture of small china knick-knacks. Does that mean I’m being kept in the dark about the horrific practices contained within each? Would I believe an article detailing the horrific conditions in which impoverished amalgam filling manufacturing workers are fed on gruel and kept in small cages? It’s possible, but only because I’ve just never been interested enough to google “dental industry”.

Consumers have an increasing interest in how food is produced – it’s up to us an industry to reach out, have the conversation and provide factual information, regardless of whether or not it is palatable to the consumer. Only then can we ensure that a common body of food production knowledge exists such that these “exposés” cease to be shocking and are rightly seen as emotive tosh, expressly designed (to quote the original article) to tug at the heartstrings and convince people not to buy eggs.

Mutton Dressed as Lamb? “British” is a Regional Descriptor, not a Brand Name.

waitroseCelebrity chefs, farmers markets and media publications continually tell us that we should buy British food. In contrast to the 1990s yuppie ideal of airfreighted Icelandic strawberries in January, local food is the new sexy. Locavores salivate at the mention of village-grown carrots so spindly that they look like an advanced case of rickets and eggs at £6 per half dozen with speckled blue shells that perfectly match their Farrow & Ball kitchen wallpaper.

Yet local food has apparently become such a marketing campaign staple, it’s reached the point where “British” is no longer a description of origin or culture, but simply a brand name. In a string of tweets between Waitrose and a number of not-unreasonably incensed farmers, agricultural industry professionals and consumers, it emerges that selling New Zealand lamb under the label “British lamb with mint and redcurrant” is entirely acceptable, as “British” is simply used to denote the origin of the dish.

To be fair, nobody expects shepherds pie to be made from real shepherds, or toad-in-the-hole to contain tasty morsels of marinated natterjack. However, in an era when we care about how, where and when food is produced; and especially given the recent Tesco “fake farms” debacle, it’s difficult to believe that any marketing department could, with a straight face, announce that “British” is simply a brand name. What’s next? Cans of Special Brew sold under the new “champagne” brand?

A certain level of mistrust already exists between the consumer, retailer and farmer, with many consumers believing that the food industry lacks transparency. Traceability and clear labelling are increasingly important to the food-savvy consumer, yet these types of marketing initiative appear to be yet more attempts to manipulate consumer buying behaviour.

Absolutely no offence is intended to New Zealand sheep farmers who do produce fabulous meat, but when lamb from overseas is prominently labelled “British” (despite the seldom-read small print), consumers may feel misled and lose trust in buying British food. By all means celebrate the rich traditions of British cuisine, but please Waitrose, stop dressing mutton as lamb.

Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

We Consume, Therefore We Are?

banned-consumerI consume, you consume, he, she or it consumes. Whether we’re buying a coffee, a bacon sandwich or a new iPad, we are consumers of goods and services every single day. Indeed, as you read this, you are consuming electrical energy, internet data and/or printer ink and paper. Aside from the very few within our society who are genuinely self-sufficient, we are all consumers – a word that should not carry negative connotations. In a world where most of us consider that we need more than a jute sack and some potatoes dug straight from the earth, we consume, therefore we are. There’s a growing movement towards consuming less (food, resources, luxury goods), yet this doesn’t mean that consumption is a negative attribute.

However, some state that using the word “consumer” creates a divisive “us and them” situation within food production, where the agricultural industry is pitted against consumers in a battle for supremacy. Proposed alternatives to consumer include “customer”, “client” or, according to one tweet addressing this topic, “just call ‘em people, we’re all people”. There’s no doubt that we’re all people, but is this just ignoring the real issue in favour of a panacea?

consumer-tweet

I freely admit that I know nothing whatsoever about car manufacture. Would I be insulted by a marketing campaign from Toyota or Ford where they tried to better inform the consumer about the various ways that vehicles are made? Not in the slightest. I have a car, I am a consumer of vehicular goods, but (and this is where the semantics come into play) I am not a “customer” of either Toyota or Ford (proud Vauxhall owner). If I suspect that the car industry is full of evil overlords intent on exploiting child labour, destroying safe water supplies and inflating the price of replacement windscreen wipers, am I going to be mollified by being called a customer, client or person? No. Similarly, somebody who believes that dairy farmers rape and murder their animals or that large-scale agriculture is inherently undesirable is not going to change their views because they’re called a person rather than a consumer.

trent-tweet

I have some friends within agriculture who genuinely believe that the consumer is their enemy. They consider that they should not have to change any facet of their farming system in order to fit with market demand, but that the ignorant (their words, not mine) need educating so that they can accept farming practices. Would changing the word consumer to customer, client or person facilitate a more diverse and accepting outlook from these producers? I think it’s highly unlikely.

It’s time to address the issues that matter. Why do we have such a disconnect between the consumer and the agricultural industry? How can we reach out to urban communities and help people to understand what happens on farms and ranches? How do we regain consumer trust where it has been lost, and enhance it where we already have a good reputation? Not easy questions to answer, but far more important to the future of food production than simply changing terminology. Without shared values and positive conversations, we cannot hope to enrich consumer opinions about agriculture – it’s time to start the conversation rather than hiding behind buzzwords and marketing hype.

Think You’re Brilliant? Don’t Just Say it, Prove it.

Feeding calfI recently had a long and rather tedious conversation with somebody who was trying to convince me that he was brilliant. I say tedious, because the conversation consisted of him telling me how brilliant he was, without actually providing any evidence of his brilliance, save for saying that “Smart people get how brilliant I am”. By definition, if I’m smart, I’m going to get it, right? Aha, he must be brilliant!

Call me picky, but if I am going to believe in somebody’s brilliance, I want examples, proof, something that I can relate to. Otherwise it just seems like a display of arrogant self-aggrandizement – a human peacock flaunting pretty feathers as a proxy for superiority.

Yet today it struck me that we often exhibit the same behaviors when explaining livestock production to the wider world. 98% of the population has no knowledge or understanding of animal agriculture. Does that mean they aren’t smart enough to understand how brilliant we are? After all, some would claim that “…some geek sitting in a cubicle in New York City never will understand animal husbandry and shouldn’t have (a) say (in livestock production)”* – therefore we don’t have to listen to their opinion.

Twitter geek quote
Regardless of whether or not they understand animal production, the consumer has a huge say in what we do every single day. If supermarket X decides they don’t want beef with from animals given implants because some consumers have concerns about hormones, implants could be effectively removed from cattle production in a matter of weeks. If a proposition is put forwards to ban dehorning, castration or tail docking, it could well pass, especially in more urban states. Precedents exist for both of these examples (Merck Animal Health’s voluntary withdrawal of Zilmax, grocery stores sourcing rbST-free milk and proposition 2 in California to ban battery cages for hens) – and once a precedent is set, other examples may follow.

So how does this relate to last week’s tedious conversation? Actions speak louder than words. Thousands of “we care for our livestock” quotes are instantly negated the moment a new animal rights video is released showing a downer cow or battered piglet. Just a single documented incidence of a manure spillage makes the “we care for the environment” quotes look like industry spin.

We have to be ahead of the curve, showing people what we do every single day – not just through words but through pictures and videos. Calving a cow at 3am, bottle-feeding a calf throughout the night, trudging through the snow to give hay to the in-calf heifers, making sure the manure lagoon is leak-free – these are all facets of livestock production that we have to share. If we just keep saying how brilliant we are without backing it up with evidence that resonates with the consumer, we’re talking to a brick wall. Because, as the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

*edited for spelling and clarity

Do Moms Have Instant Beef Credibility?

TrustI spoke at the International Livestock Congress back in January 2012, and at the end of the day, had the pleasure of listening to a couple of distinguished industry colleagues wrapping up the day’s talks in Q&A format. The conversation went thus (with names changed to spare the blushes of the individuals concerned):

Dr. R: “Jude Capper talked about the importance of having credible industry spokespeople to communicate with consumers – how do you suggest that we improve the image of beef sustainability?”

Dr. S: (hitches up his pants, stands up straight): “Well, Jude Capper is credible because she is female…” (pause while the shoulders and eyebrows of 50 or so female graduate students in the audience almost hit the ceiling) “…and she’ll be even more credible when she has children.”

If any one of those graduate students had a gun, a knife or even a sharpened pencil, I think it’s a safe bet that Dr. S would not still be on this earth – the air was so thick with “How dare that chauvinistic old man SAY that?!” it was like spending a weekend in a cigar bar. Yet Dr. S was absolutely right (although he’d probably have fewer voodoo dolls created in his image if he’d explained his statement) – female scientists, especially those who have children, are trusted by female consumers more than the traditional scientific image of an older man in a white lab coat. Why? Well it’s all about how we relate to others. We’re more likely to trust people who seem more like ourselves (age, ethnic group, profession, socioeconomic class) than those with whom we perceive we have little in common. It’s therefore not surprising that recent research (graphs below) shows that we trust our friends and families more than we trust the media, TV shows (take that, Oprah!) or politicians.

Early baby bumpI’m excited to announce that I’m gaining credibility by the day…pound by pound…literally. At almost 7 months pregnant, the most popular question I have at conferences is still “How do I communicate this information to the consumer?”, but it’s swiftly followed by “When is your baby due?”. My baby bump has given me more opportunities for conversations about the importance of beef in pregnancy nutrition with people in airports, on planes and in the grocery store in the past few months than in the rest of my life to date – and I haven’t been the person starting the conversation.

Who do consumers trust 1

Who do consumers trust 2

So what does this mean for communicating with the consumer? Even in these enlightened times, women still make the bulk of food-buying decisions, so we need to specifically target the female consumer . In almost every talk I do, I urge farmers and ranchers to put photos, videos and status updates on Facebook and Twitter so that they can reach their crazy cousin, unsure uncle or doubting daughter, living in a far-off city, with positive messages about agriculture. This time, I’m widening the net – if you happen to be male*, please also ask  your wife, girlfriend, daughter, mother, granddaughter or niece to post and let the female consumer know why we do what we do every day, why beef is a great choice for our families, and why we spend time for caring for baby calves almost as if they are our own children. If you’re female… well, have at it! There are already some excellent blogs out there from women in the livestock industry (e.g. DairyCarrie, The South Dakota CowgirlFeedyard Foodie, Mom at the Meat CounterThe Real Farm Wives of America and The Pinke Post) – let’s push back against all the tide of anti-meat or anti-conventional agriculture misinformation with more real-life experiences from the parents of the next generation of farmers, ranchers and consumers.

*Note that I am NOT suggesting that only women should blog or post on social media! This is simply about making that female-female connection that, whether we like it or not, does promote an instant degree of trust