From Twitter to the table
WILLMAR -- Producing, processing and selling beef, turkey, milk and more is no longer enough for the agriculture and food industry. To win the hearts, if not the wallets, of the public, food companies must engage consumers with transparency and s...
WILLMAR - Producing, processing and selling beef, turkey, milk and more is no longer enough for the agriculture and food industry.
To win the hearts, if not the wallets, of the public, food companies must engage consumers with transparency and social responsibility, panel participants said during a discussion Wednesday at Willmar’s MinnWest Technology Campus.
“One of the things we’ve realized as an industry is we can’t sit back,” said Joe Swedberg, vice president of legislative affairs for Hormel Foods.
The panel discussion was one of several presentations at an animal science conference, hosted annually at the technology campus to bring together ag scientists, food industry leaders, policymakers and economic experts to hear the latest trends affecting American food production.
The distance between the chicken barn and Twitter has become exceedingly short, making it more important than ever for the food industry to demonstrate social responsibility, panel participants said.
“There’s not a premium for doing what’s right. There’s a penalty for not doing what’s right,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity and panel moderator.
Arnot cited research conducted by his consulting firm, CMA, on consumer attitudes toward the food industry. One of the key findings: Consumers were more likely to trust small farms and small food companies. The larger the farm or company, the less likely they were to believe that principles would come before profits.
A bias against so-called big food “is real,” Arnot said. “It’s something that we experience today in agriculture.”
In a complex consumer environment where a single negative video can go viral in the social media, agriculture and the food industry can’t afford to downplay the value of behaving ethically, he said.
When companies are actively transparent, invite their stakeholders to engage with them and openly admit their mistakes, they can build social goodwill and display values that are consistent with what consumers expect of them, Arnot said.
“Simply educating the public is not going to be successful,” he said. “We have to engage them.”
He added: “Once you lose that social license, you move to social control and it’s much more costly. … The consequences from a bad actor don’t accrue just to the bad actor. We have a shared interest in maintaining the social license.”
Panelists Swedberg and Bob Lefebvre, senior vice president of industry relations for the Midwest Dairy Association, both graded agriculture’s current state of transparency with a C or C-plus.
The industry isn’t always comfortable with public relations and has at times been slow to recognize the importance of being proactive, they said.
There’s room for improvement in identifying bad actors, Lefebvre said. “We have to be brave enough, maybe perhaps, to call them out.”
American agriculture is continuously adopting new technology for better animal care and is forging ahead with innovations to help feed a hungry world - a story that the public ought to hear, the panelists said.
In the future, it will be especially important to reach out to millennials as they become a larger force in the economy, Lefebvre said.
“That’s the market that will be setting the tone for what’s happening in the United States. … We have to make sure that we are talking to them and sharing their values,” he said.