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Consumer report reveals potential outlook for dairy industry

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 11 March 2015

Today’s agriculture industry faces a number of new challenges. From global issues such as feeding a growing population to more specific, farm-level issues like how to treat a sick calf, today’s producers hold a wealth of knowledge and years of forward thinking.

These two admirable traits have brought the industry to where it is today. Unfortunately, over the years the gap between producers and consumers has grown, creating a disconnect between the two. More recently, producers and consumers have sought to close this gap as consumers began to ask questions about where and how their food is produced.

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To help assess the situation and better determine how to communicate with the public, the Center for Food with Integrity (CFI) conducts an annual study to assess where the public stands on various issues. Among other things, 2014’s report asked three key scale-based agree/disagree questions:

  • If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs (Figure 1).
  • U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals (Figure 2).
  • I would support a law in my state to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals (Figure 3).

meat consumption survey

On one hand, there is a clear demand from consumers for animal products. On the other, they desire the animals be raised and cared for in a humane manner. If they are not assured of this, they will take legal action and support laws that will regulate how animals are cared for and give them the assurance they desire.

So what does this mean to the dairy industry and to the agriculture industry as a whole? Should producers prepare for the worst and brace for a hailstorm of regulations telling them what they can and cannot do?

animal treatment survey

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Not necessarily, because as Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship at Dean Foods, points out, we don’t need to get everyone to love us, we just need to get them to trust us. Accomplishing that, however, while feasible, will take some amount of proactivity from the agriculture industry.

Studies like this are important to understand how to communicate with consumers about what goes on in agriculture. In fact, according to Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI, that was the entire point of this year’s study.

Animal protection law survey“What we’re trying to do is to understand better ways to introduce or talk about today’s food system in a way that builds trust with consumers,” Arnot says. “We have a peer-reviewed and published model for building trust that was developed from this research. It really ties back to the ability to communicate values and not just science when we talk about what we do in ag.

This year what we wanted to be able to do was to take the best models we could find and the anthropology, sociology and psychology – three key pillars of social science – and integrate those into a new approach, a new study into how we can do a better job of introducing complex, technical issues into today’s social conversation about food.”

Walker takes it one step further and challenges those in the agriculture industry to ask why consumers are answering the questions that way.

“From these kinds of questions, you have to dig a little deeper to try to understand why,” Walker says. “That’s what I think we need to strive to understand; it’s not ‘How do we convince them to say what we want them to say?’ but ‘Why did they answer it that way?’ That’s the critical step we haven’t taken.

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As an industry, we tend to skip past that and look for the ‘OK, this was your answer, but how can I convince you to answer otherwise?’ instead of asking why they answered that way. Until we address that, I think we’re going to kind of chase our tails a little bit.”

What then is the answer?

First of all, producers need to become more transparent. Consumers need to see and believe that animals are being cared for humanely. The meat industry has done an excellent job of this through auditing and making an effort to show the public how it is, Walker says. They have hard data that show where they’ve come from, where they are and where they’re going. They don’t hide or sugarcoat the issues. Instead, they address them by pointing out how they’re working to overcome problems.

Demonstrating to consumers how the industry is already addressing issues without making it a legal situation is the best method for convincing the public that legal action and additional laws are unnecessary.

Research indicates and past experience shows that humane treatment of animals is a real concern to consumers, even if their buying habits don’t always reflect that. This creates the disconnect where people say they want animals treated a certain way, but their shopping cart says otherwise.

The reason for this, Walker says, is that studies show while consumers are willing to pay more for food, they don’t want to be the only one. If changes need to be made in the industry to make the process more humane for the animal, consumers are in favor of that, but it needs to be across the board.

They do not want to feel that they are the only one doing the right thing, nor do they want to have to wade through several different brands trying to figure out which one was raised humanely.

To overcome this, producers need to present a united front and a level playing field. If people know and understand that humane treatment is already taking place, they will not feel the need to make this a legal issue, says David Pelzer, senior vice president of Dairy Management Inc.

He encourages the dairy industry to join programs like DMI’s Anticipate. Prepare. Protect. or National Milk Producer’s Federation’s FARM and See it. Stop it. programs. These are preferable not only because the people there actually want to be there, but it also frees them up to work within the industry to adapt, develop and strive toward better animal care without being tied down by legal issues.

Emily Meredith, vice president of animal care at NMPF, also encourages producers to adopt the FARM program.

“Regulations don’t have the emphasis of continuous improvement like the FARM program does,” Meredith says. “Other animal care programs and regulations are all about punishing people and being restrictive, and the FARM program is really about fostering a culture of continuous improvement to raise that bar when it comes to animal care.”

What is alarming, Pelzer says, is that according to DMI’s research, 35 percent of millennials believe that dairy producers continually mistreat their animals. While consumers do trust producers, veterinarians are at the top of their list, and he would like to see them take the lead and speak out about what really goes on in the dairy industry.

Consumer research shows they don’t expect perfection; they just expect people to care and be committed to improvement. This is what the dairy industry needs to show.

Arnot encourages those in the agriculture industry to see this as an opportunity to not only start a conversation about agriculture but also as a time of self-evaluation. Hard questions need to be asked regarding animal care, and improvements made if necessary. If producers have nothing to hide, they need to demonstrate that with their actions.

“We need to embrace transparency in a way that we haven’t before,” Arnot says. “In agriculture, we send this conflicted message that we have nothing to hide, but it’s none of your business and we really don’t want people to be on our farms.”

Transparency is what will bridge this gap, but it will not be overnight, Arnot says. This issue took a generation to create, and it’s going to take a generation to solve it. PD

jenna hurty

Jenna Hurty
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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