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Recent public opinion polls show Americans still view farmers in a positive light, but consumer support for farmers is fragile in some areas. Farmers need to address these concerns with public relations campaigns if they are to retain the consumer goodwill they now possess.

The National Cattlemen's Association recently sponsored a survey of opinion influencers, polling representatives of the media and high-level members of government agencies, congressional staffs and food and health organizations.Pat Adrian, chairman of the NCA's consumer relations committee, says the results "show that many of these influencers hold generally positive views of cattle production methods."

"However, some of the same people - because of inadequate information and misconceptions about the fat content of beef - continue to have reservations about beef. The challenge to the industry is to get accurate information to the nation's media personnel and other thought leaders."

Some 67 percent of those polled felt cattlemen are responsible stewards of the land they use. Respondents were almost evenly split on whether cattle production presents water pollution problems.

More than half said cattle production methods are sufficiently humane. Of those who wanted to see changes, most mentioned veal production. Two-thirds said meat inspection is somewhat or very effective. Some 60 percent said beef is as safe to eat as other food, and 25 percent said it is safer.

When asked about safety issues related to beef, about 40 percent mentioned hormones and growth chemicals, fat and cholesterol.

About 70 percent said they believe the industry has been responsive in addressing the public interest.

Another poll, conducted by the Animal Industry Foundation, a national education and research foundation dedicated to informing consumers about modern livestock and poultry practices, found 93 percent of those questioned view farmers and ranchers as an essential part of American life; 89 percent believe farmers and ranchers are doing a good job of producing healthy, reasonably priced food; and 79 percent said farmers and ranchers are competent and efficient businesspeople.

The poll found 79 percent believe farmers and ranchers treat their animals humanely and 40 percent believe specific modern animal husbandry practices are done primarily for animal health and safety.

Despite this favorable opinion, the AIF poll found one in four respondents feels modern farming practices are cruel to animals and another 25 percent didn't know if they are cruel.

AIF director Steven L. Kopperud says the American public may not fully understand modern farming practices.

"Although most Americans believe farmers treat their animals humanely overall, consumers are less sure that some specific practices are humane. Livestock and poultry producers must communicate more effectively with consumers.

"If this communication does not take place, the result may be increased regulation."

More than two-thirds of those surveyed in the AIF poll said they would support further regulation to ensure the humane treatment of animals.

Lest farmers and ranchers doubt the seriousness of animal rights groups or the existence of radical environmentalists, John Morken, president of the Livestock Marketing Association, reports in a recent issue of Utah Cattlemen magazine that an environmental group claimed responsibility for setting a $250,000 fire at the Dixon Livestock Auction Co., Dixon, Calif., this year.

Larry Meyers, of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Sheep Industry Association, says:

"Almost every day the news media brings environmental threats to our attention. Major news magazines feature environmental problems as front cover issues; movie stars increase their visibility by taking up as their own today's front page news; and anyone opposed to a construction project can find an environmental reason to protect the site.

"Let's face it, this is the era of the environmentalist."

As Meyers points out, "the modern environmentalist wears a suit and tie and has a law degree. Environmental organizations are big business. One recent estimate is that the many environmental organizations operating in the United States have combined budgets of more than $1 billion a year."

Genevieve Larsen, Spanish Fork, president of the Utah CattleWomen, says agriculture should "let our opponents know, on every occasion, our story. Let's be sure our information is accurate and our approach positive."

People need to know, she says, "what great environmentalists and animal welfare rights advocates we are - or we still wouldn't be in the profession. If ranchers hadn't preserved the natural resources and grazing land, everyone else wouldn't be wanting it now."