NEW FOOD MOVEMENT

The New Food Movement

Navigating the New Food Movement: 12 Farm and Food Trends for 2012

Watch for these dozen farm and food trends to heat up in the coming year

1. Animal welfare
2. Mission: to divide
3. Technology vs anti-technology
4. Food-safety bait-and-switch
5. Antibiotics
6. The local push
7. Farmers markets
8. Organic vs. more-ganic
9. Access to food
10. Bigger farms/fewer farms
11. Food safety and the promise of Nirvana
12. 'Responsible food'

 

Animal welfare. From the country’s largest hog farmer pronouncing it would finally follow through on a promise to stop housing pregnant pigs in small individual stalls, to new developments in this summer’s deal between the nation’s egg farmer association and the largest animal-rights group HSUS, the spotlight will continue to illuminate shoppers’ perceptions and misperceptions about how farm animals are treated. Expect additional state legislation to be introduced, increased pressure on USDA to expand standards critics believe are lacking to improve how livestock live, and increasing (and periodically meaningless) label claims saying one food is raised “more humanely” than another. Guess who gets to explain what it all means to consumers. Are you prepared?

Mission: to divide. When small-farm advocates complain about “Big Ag” and “Big Food,” they’re right in one sense. When the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal—consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. Therefore, they understand the ultimate mission is to divide the food chain against one another. Just as the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals did with its July “undercover video” of Iowa hog farms, look for vocal critics of the food chain to continue inundating food companies with so-called “consumer complaints” about their farmer suppliers. By pressuring large food retailers, they hope to succeed in the market where they’ve failed in the political arena. That success will often be measured by how much they can add significant costs to food producers, impose burdensome regulation by supplier dictate, or even win de facto outright product or practice bans. Although it may strike retailers as the safest and quickest response to yield to such pressure, it’s a dangerous path for you to strike out upon. It can hurt the bottom line, as supply costs increase. But beyond that lie additional risks: In the short term, demanding suppliers abandon a cost-effective and safe technology only implies to consumers that some justifiable reason exists to reject it, making consumers distrustful of you for using it in the first place. In the longer term, feeding the activist machine hampers the overall food chain when it comes time to adopt future technologies that improve production efficiency, quality and food safety. And finally, case history demonstrates capitulation often only makes you a more attractive target for future, less “reasonable” demands.

Technology vs. anti-technology. Continuing infatuation with “natural,” “free-range,” “local,” “sustainable,” and even the old standby “farm raised” and “farm fresh” are short-hand labeling terms to signal an underlying discomfort with the scientific technology that has made U.S. agriculture the world’s most productive. Expect to see the trend continue, masked in even more creative terms like “from family farms” and “not from factory farms.”

The food-safety bait-and-switch. Many critics and political opponents of modern farming express frustration at the general public’s stubborn unwillingness to buy the message that their food is killing them and the federal government’s built-in hesitance to rubber-stamp rash legislation. So they will continue to adopt another approach they believe will gain them more advocates in the mass market: Look for them to morph individual food-safety questions into broader environmental-safety issues. Some examples?

  • Genetically engineered foods, which although studiously proven to be of no risk to human health are increasingly painted by environmentalists as a threat to the planet’s plants and animals.
  • Arguments that American diets are only affordable to individuals because farmers push “externalized” costs like pollution and community destruction off onto the general public at large (even as the critics ignore the externalized costs of expensive food).
  • Manure from farms that use antibiotics and growth promotants as an environmental risk. Unable to prove such products pose any meaningful risk to the health of individuals who eat the food produced by such farms, political opponents of the technology will attempt to make the case they are seeping into the public through pollution of the soil, air and water.

As is the case with childhood obesity, such bait-and-switch strategy depends on studiously misdirecting the eye of the public and regulators from clear issues of personal choice and personal responsibility to murkier, shadowy threat to the general public as a whole. 

Antibiotics. Despite failing in the last seven Congresses in a row to convince legislators that farm antibiotics pose enough threat to ban them, despite FDA’s dismissal this year of a decade-old legal petition that it circumvent Congress and regulate the practice out of existence, the question of farmers’ use of antibiotics and what lawmakers should do about it will not be going away soon. Be ready for additional consumer questions, and bear in mind two important aspects:

  • One, if you carefully study the language lobbyists use to frighten the public and pressure lawmakers, you’ll notice they speak not of certain harm to human health, but of risk of harm. And, yes, even defenders of the practice admit use of antibiotics in farm animals does carry risk. The risk you’ll die from an untreatable disease because farmers use penicillin, for example, is about one in 4 billion—or more than seven times less likely than getting hit by lightning. Shoppers driving to your store to buy antibiotic-free meat to avoid that risk are about 600,000 times more likely to be killed behind the wheel on the way there.
  • Meanwhile, even the most vocal opponents of farm antibiotics will concede that, far and away, the No. 1 cause of human drugs losing their effectiveness is that too many people take too many antibiotics for the wrong reasons. Grocers who point out the antibiotic issue to shoppers in their meat and dairy cases and then send them across the store to their pharmacies for discount antibiotic prescriptions may be sending mixed messages to consumers concerned about the issue of antibiotic resistance.

The local push. USDA predicts food sales through direct-to-consumer channels and intermediaries, including grocers, will rise to about $7 billion for 2011. However, the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. If consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community that purchasing from local farmers brings, few retailers are in better position to lead that trend than the community focused grocer. If true, grocers may discover the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

Farmers markets. The visible result of that local push will be continued official sanction of farmers markets as direct competition to you. USDA now numbers 7,173 farmers markets for 2011, up 17 percent over the year before. A good portion of that growth is being subsidized by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, through its Farmers Market Promotion Program. Funding farmers markets expansions since 2006, the program this October announced another $9.2 million in funding. Allotted about $33 million by the last farm bill, the program expects to make available another $10 million for 2012.

Organic vs. more-ganic. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) its continuing growth in market share, organic is suffering an identity crisis that stands to further erode its credibility in the years ahead. Co-option by corporate giants, most notably Wal-Mart, as well as dependence for credibility upon a bureaucracy as deep and loathed by the new movement as USDA, the organic brand is now, ironically, being attacked from within by those who question the need to be more than organic. “For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it’s healthier,” author Felicia Mello wrote in a recent issue of the politically liberal magazine The Nation, “but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits.” The infighting between the organic and the more-ganic wings of the “sustainable” farming fashion has the potential to add to growing consumer confusion over exactly what they’re getting when they willingly increase their food bill to purchase products that science has yet to prove offer any real, meaningful health benefit in return.

Access to food. Promises of further food inflation ahead, impending reduction of benefits to the unemployed and poor even as the economy continues to drag, highly public infighting over how to divide up the safety net benefits like WIC and EBT between grocers and other food outlets—it’s all going to mean continuing media focus on those who don’t have sufficient access to good food every day. In the political season of next year, watch for the highly vocal and well-organized “community food security movement” to ramp up attacks on conventional food distribution by fostering a creeping paranoia that the grocer-centered, for-profit food system is no longer up to the task of feeding everybody fairly and sustainably.

Bigger farms/fewer farms. Despite a bump in the number of small farms counted in the last national farm census, related to the expansion of local farms around cities, the longterm trend toward larger and fewer farms will continue unabated in the years ahead. For better or worse, the United States will never return to the small, local diversified farms of yesteryear, any more than it will return to the corner grocer as the model for retail. Yet, according to USDA, about 99 percent of U.S. farms and ranches remain in hands of individuals, families or partnerships, not large corporations.

Food safety and the promise of Nirvana. The coming fight isn’t about whether or not to make food safer. It’s about how to best accomplish it. As the political dialog in the election year polarizes the philosophies of government-as-solution vs. government-as-problem, look for the food-safety debate to take on similar tones, pitting the government solution against the system created by profit incentives of a properly functioning free market. Case in point: USDA’s capitulation this year to add the non-STEC strains of E. coli to its list of illegal food adulterants. As government steps in to visibly stamp such realities of food production as no longer allowed, with little to no regard for the practical realities of delivering on such promises, it risks setting the consumer up for further disappointment when the system inevitably fails to deliver.

“Responsible Food.” Today’s fight over food hides a lot of political and social undercurrents, undercurrents that will create some significant undertows in the political season of 2012. If you’re defining “good” food as food that’s simply nutritious, safe and wholesome, you’re risking being blindsided by entirely new definitions of “good.” Those definitions include socially just in how food rewards both the workers who deliver it and the poor consumers who can’t afford to eat it, environmentally sound in how it impacts the planet, culturally sensitive in how it forces minorities to abandon the foods of their unique cultures, and animal-sensitive in terms of how it ensures animals it originates from enjoy “enriched” lives before they meet their demise.


Navigating the New Food Movement: Why Not Make Every Day Agriculture Appreciation Day?

Reporting on 400 fourth graders from 15 area schools traveling to the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center for Nebraska's annual Agriculture Appreciation Day, North Platte Telegraph reporter Diane Wetzel hit it right on the head: 

"For 'town kids' who may not know if there is a difference between a heifer and Hereford, going to the grocery store is the closest they get to Nebraska's agriculture economy."

The students visited eight stations in the Center's parking lot to learn about plants, crops, bugs, horses, cows and food processing. The question Nebraska grocers should be considering is this: Why shouldn't every day be the chance to connect consumers with agriculture at the point of natural contact, the supermarket? 

What better illustration than the controversery last year over some supermarket chains taking criticism for promoting fresh produce sales by posting "Farmers Markets" signs? As farmers, we think it would be a mistake to overlook the longterm implications of the "us vs. them" mentality that's developing around the 6,100 farmer’s markets which USDA now reports exist across the country. The local farmers market movement, now underwritten by the Obama Administration's USDA to the tune of $65 million through its Know Your Farmer Know Your Food program, is a struggle over who gets to claim partnership with the "real farmer." It is a fight over the authenticity of the most important thing in everyone's life: food.

But the point we'd like to get across is that every food market is a farmers market.

Those direct-to-consumer outlets obviously meet a need. Joel Wachs, president of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, crystallized it when he told the Wall Street Journal, "If we don't have it stand for a very simple thing—farmers selling directly to consumers the produce they grow—then you've lost what so many people find valuable and magic about these events."

Grocers must realize that, as Wachs rightly says, the often politicized farmers market movement is indeed selling magic. But it's not a magic that community supermarkets can easily capture through simple signage. More importantly, it's not magic they should necessarily want to capture. Instead, retailers have to learn to better communicate the economic magic our food system performs every day.

Playing with fire?

To one degree or another -- some quite vocally , some more subtly -- the local-food, farmers market advocates suggest that local food is better tasting, more sustainable and safer than the conventional food you sell. All this on the grounds of little or no real evidence that it's true. But for political advocates of a local-based system, such as author and advocate Mark Winne, author of Food Rebels and Closing the Food Gap, the evidence isn't a particular necessity. They are merely convenient market shorthand for broader aims the movement hopes to achieve.

Whether directly or by inference, critics like Winne imply the conventional supply chain consists of empty promotion, without moral virtue, disconnected from the community, guilty of producing unsafe food, destructive of the world, unsustainable, polluting, and economically unfair. In contrast, the unspoiled domain of the farmer -- small, community-rooted, low-tech, devoted only incidentally to profit (and as a result, often acceptably underpaid) -- is the only correctly authentic defender of the underlying virtues. This in spite of the evidence that the farmers market structure has its own problems of authenticity.

Instead of pandering to a food authenticity that really exists only in fiction, the community-centered grocer has to communicate its own authenticity, especially:

  • That the market-driven, profit-oriented distribution system may need some tweaks, but it is not broken and doesn't need wholesale revolution.
  • That the modern food system is the one in history that has lived up to the promise of feeding the poor on anywhere near a national or international scale.
  • That the modern system is the best hope for leading the underserved areas of food distribution into a future that improves the availability for all.
  • That the system can only accomplish that future by growing the system rather than redistributing a smaller share "more fairly."

It is a mistake to buy into the need to imitate the small farmers market by using the language of the system's opponents. It confirms their accusations that you don't deserve the trust to feed the public, simply because you may be a market for farmers, you're just not the market for the right kind of farmers. Instead, every working community grocer should take the opportunity to reclaim not just agriculture appreciation every day, but food system appreciation. 

Photo by Diane Wetzel/The North Platte Telegraph

Let's talk about this issue! Leave a comment or question below, and we'll get you a real answer or response from one of your working Nebraska farmers.

Navigating the New Foodism: Where Do those Farm Aid Dollars Go?

This summer's Farm Aid concert held in August in Kansas City received several glowing reviews from the Nebraska media, most of which echoed the sentiment that not only does the 26-year-old annual concert offer good music, it also meets a valuable need in "supporting farmers in crisis." 

"Farm Aid is about continuing to create a farming culture that embodies the best of America’s farms," one Nebraska reviewer wrote.

However, although promoters billed the annual concert as a benefit for America’s family farmers, grocers should be cautious about the politics behind the effort. Food and farming have become words increasingly used as a political platform. Farm Aid is a prime example. You’ve seen the event morph from being about helping family farmers stay on the farm and endure a two-decade-past financial crisis, to today promoting a small farm only agenda. The $39 million Farm Aid organization and its chief public faces, singers Willie Nelson, John “Johnny Cougar” Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews, rail against large farms, using the activist’s coded language of factory farms, corporate greed, technology such as genetically modified, growth hormones and antibiotics.

Speaking of the 2006 concert, for instance, a glowing new media press report about co-founder Niel Young boasted of this evolution in sensibilities. “[Young] has seen the cause of Farm Aid go from a financial organization to activist organization.” His involvement, it continued, was in reaction to the “quality of food in U.S. supermarkets, and how to get the family farmer growing superior food to industrial producers into the market.”

Granted, Farm Aid always had a markedly political tone, as you’d expect from such a collection of pop music entertainers. However, the group’s aim to educate and motivate people to influence farm policy goes deeper than the face value of making U.S. citizens healthier by improving the quality of the food. Their language has also shifted from not just “helping family farmers” but to a “Good Foods Movement.” And the important distinction grocers have to realize is that “good” in “good foods” bypasses the grocer completely. According to the Farm Aid web site, “Getting food directly from farmers at farmers markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSAs) puts your dollars directly into the hands of family farmers and you receive the best quality food.” Such tactical division of the food system--small farm vs. big farm, supermarket vs. farmers market, organic vs. conventional--is a common tool used by political advocates of a system that relies on the traditional, profit-driven, free-enterprise system of which you are a part. And those progressive political aims are regularly funded, even in a time of record public debt and budget cuts, by federal, state and local governments. The federal government increased the funding on the Healthy Foods Initiative from $35 million to $400 million. It also promoted a campaign called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a $65 million initiative designed to drive consumers to farmers markets bypassing the grocery retailer.

In Nebraska, Farm Aid's devotion of dollars illustrates the group's growing rift between early aims and today's. Of the $408,100 the group reports granting to other organizations in 2010, $7,500 went to the Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska's Rural Response Hotline, a suicide hotline set up during the 1980s farm crisis to respond to an increase in rural suicides, which has been funded since. In addition, another $15,000 went to the Center for Rural Affairs, which although demonstrating an affinity for direct sales of farm goods to consumers as well as publicly owned grocery stores, is not as stridently anti-supermarket as other groups outside Nebraska that are funded by Farm Aid.

The Real Truth about the Latest Farm Cruelty Video

Ten Lessons Retailers Should Take away from the Latest Criticism of Animal Farming, from Food-Chain Communications President Kevin Murphy

The latest undercover video secretly shot by a planted hire working for the activist group Mercy for Animals shows workers identified as employees of the nation’s fourth largest pork farm throwing and kicking young piglets, smashing one pig’s head to the floor to kill it. But there's a great deal of context missing from the inflammatory video scenes, and there's some important lessons grocers can learn from it, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with common farm practices.

Click on the play button to hear Kevin explain the ten lessons retailers can learn from this latest video

Mercy For Animals contacted officials at Costco, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Safeway, according to the Associated Press, gave them access to the video before its public release, and demanded they stop buying pork from this farm supplier. MFA Executive Director Nathan Runkle said this was one of the group’s first attempts to affect changes by directly attacking grocer retailers, a trend that is likely to increase. 

During the more than 50 years’ of food-chain communication experience represented by the principals at Food-Chain Communications, we have followed and actively studied what we now have come to coin the Food Morality Movement. This is a movement that seeks to condemn the modern food production system on the grounds of religion, ethics and morality. This ultimately is the root of the accusations against this pork farm and its retailing partners.

We believe debating the food system on the grounds of the Food Morality Movement is unfamiliar territory to most of its members, from retailers to farmers. And it requires tactics that are equally unfamiliar. For instance, activists like MFA understand this is not boxing; it’s jujitsu. Just as the ancient Japanese martial art uses a bigger and better-armed attacker's energy against him, rather than directly opposing it, MFA and like-minded activists are successfully searching the food chain for just the right pressure point, the place where they can inflict the greatest paralyzing pain to the entire system. Increasingly, that’s you, the grocery retailer.

Unfortunately, too many retailers aren’t prepared to respond with a defense against jujitsu; they still think they’re boxing. If you’re going to effectively respond to this new-age criticism, here are 10 things to consider:

bullet1 Avoid knee-jerk PR. I realize this is Public Relations 101, and trust me, I understand the urgency to rush a response to the public when you’re the focus of such heated attack. But the “any response is better than no response” school of thought is a losing proposition in this new fight. MFA, like other animal rights organizations, invests heavily in communication. Study this latest video yourself, and you’ll see: They are masterfully scripted, shot, edited, scored and presented to evoke deep emotion. When food-chain communicators let their own emotion (that is, fear) drive an immediate, shot-from-the-hip response, they’re bound to rush statements into the public debate that do more damage than damage control. Sometimes it’s OK to say “We don’t know what this is all about yet, but we promise to find out.”

bullet2 Know the context.A favorite saying of mine goes, “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” It’s an apt description of this latest video. Only until you understand what’s going on around the people “caught” on tape abusing animals can you begin to understand—and help your customers understand—that all is not as it seems. Much of the cruelty exposed is planted in the mind of the beholder long before the fleeting image reinforces it. For example, the worker pictured at 2:10 into the video “juggling” and “throwing” the baby pig is actually in the process of doctoring newborn pigs, probably in this case giving the piglet an injection of iron to keep him healthy as he grows. The pretext you see out of context is cruel handling; what you see in context is a worker who, highly efficient at his job, is moving through a single step in a process he likely repeated hundreds of times in the course of the morning that followed the clip, quickly injecting the pig and tossing it to his co-worker who—for the sake of reducing the pig’s stress level, is equally quick in returning it to the comforting presence of its brothers, sisters and mother.

Now, you can rightly argue that may represent a couple of workers who are possibly getting hasty and sloppy in their job, even possibly violating corporate standard operating procedures. But cruel?

Warning: Extremely graphic video 

 

 

Know the heart of the messenger. When Iowa Select Farms, the target of the video, reassures the public it “has a long-standing history of meeting high-quality animal care standards” and “a commitment to animal welfare and continuous improvement,” the response falls flat because it misses the ultimate point of the attack. Mercy for Animals is simply using criticism of Iowa Select’s animal care practices in order to advance a larger agenda: MFA believes humans do not have a right to use animals as they see fit.

Look at the group’s own words in its mission statement:

  • “…non-human animals are irreplaceable individuals with morally significant interests and hence rights. This includes the right to live free from unnecessary suffering and exploitation.”
  • “...MFA primarily focuses on…promoting cruelty-free food choices.”
  • "…cruelty to animals in the United States occurs at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries - which confine, mutilate, and slaughter over 9 billion animals each year.”

So, even though the video pretends to be aimed at forcing Iowa Select to be more humane in handling the pigs it eventually turns into food, the very fact that MFA considers “slaughter” to be unnecessarily cruel clearly demonstrates the group will accept nothing short of vegetarianism. That’s their Achilles heal where effective response to the attack lies.

bullet 4Consider this an invitation to a deeper relationship, a deeper knowledge. The kind of contextualization necessary to understand the issues and explain them to consumers can only come by acquainting yourself intimately with your farm suppliers. If you don’t understand the reasons behind practices MFA consider inhumane, if you simply rush to condemn the food chain by acquiescing, as some retailers have, you may be endorsing accusations and accelerating an agenda you would otherwise vehemently oppose.

bullet 5You can’t be only partially guilty. In its public response to the MFA attack on purchasing such “cruelly raised” pork, the targeted retail chains were quick to attempt to distance themselves from the farm and its packer, to one degree or another. But when it comes to an attack on your ethics like this one, if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. There’s no waffling on being an animal abuser. Traditional distancing public-relations measures are simply not going to work.

bullet 6Understand the interconnectedness of the modern food chain. Here’s why you can’t hold the issue at arm’s length. As one grocery retailer said, “This is an industry issue.” But that defense ignores the reality that everyone is a part of that industry now. The grocery retailer can pass the blame back down the chain by ceasing purchases, but the reality is pork (and beef, and milk, and chickens, turkeys, lamb and eggs) has to be purchased from somebody. The nature of our interactive food chain—more accurately, food web--is not going to allow you to dismiss yourselves from accusations against your suppliers. “I’m just merchandising the stuff,” no longer holds water today. The New Food activism and Brand Environmentalism have trained today’s consumers well in one regard: If you purchase, you enable. You may have no direct role on the farm, but your influence impacts their behavior. Consumers understand that, and activists are openly betting on it to effect the changes they want to make in the entire system, one farm, one retailer and one consumer at a time.

bullet 7Don’t throw others under the bus. Because of that interactivity in the food-chain, it’s increasingly difficult to appear to be the righteous actor by pointing out those who are doing wrong. We have to understand attacks like this pit one entire vision of how a food system should work against another entire vision. Despite the fact MFA speaks the language of evolution in animal handling practices, its actions decidedly speak of revolution. When those of us who believe the system is in no such need of open revolution acquiesce in the fight by sacrificing a part of the chain seen as expendable, it almost inevitably rebounds to hurt everybody. A highly visible communications agency did it last year when it tried to appease the voices attacking large-scale egg farming over fears of Salmonella when it pointed out, why, there’s a lot more people sickened by E. coli in spinach every year!

bullet 8 Tour farm suppliers regularly. If I’ve successfully convinced you deflection is no long-term strategy, then the obvious next step is to actively participate in learning what your farm suppliers do, why they do it, and how they can help you defend against attacks like MFA’s. Programs like Farmer Goes to Market are a great start. While you are receiving the e-mail newsletter this is just the opening of the barn door. Tours, roundtables, and other close-up events are also offered through your state’s grocery retail organization.

bullet 9 Recognize the mission: To divide. When activists complain about “Big Ag” and “Big Food,” they’re right in one sense. When the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal—consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. Therefore, they understand the ultimate mission is to divide the food chain against one another. Consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on.

“Schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith,” author and scholar Mary Eberstadt told me in a fascinating Truth in Food interview last year. Activists who want to reinvent the modern food chain in their own image understand that fact, and they understand shattering the united chain into inter-fighting elements not only works in their favor, it’s a prerequisite to rebuilding it through revolution.

bullet 10 The moral answer trumps all. To a man (and woman), every person I’ve seen attempt to respond to the MFA video so far has made the same mistake. They refuse to openly, actively and pointedly address the moral questions MFA raises. If you remember your high-school Aristotle (the father of rhetoric), he reminded us there are three legs to making an effective argument:

  • Logos, or logic
  • Pathos, or emotion
  • Ethos, or the ethics of those involved.

Mercy for Animals uses pathos masterfully in presenting the heartbreaking story of poor, defenseless animals being abused in the name of corporate greed. Corporate ag and food production employs logos at its highest level by reassuring consumers they have volumes of written, scientific welfare standards in place on all their supplier farms and they standards are backed by scientific studies and corporate standard operating procedures. And yet, the consumer—the primary audience each side is struggling to be hear from—is left without an answer to the final question: Who is right, and who is wrong. To be effective, we must be willing and able to turn the logical and emotional debates into the underlying moral questions. And then we must be able to answer them effectively.

Listen to our interview on Truth in Food with animal-rights opponent Wesley J. Smith, author of a Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy. He quickly dispatches the concept that animals are moral beings, capable of entering into a moral contract and thus owed the rights reserved to humans. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand that adequate defense is not the soft middle ground of improved welfare standards, corporate commitment to continuous improvement in humane care, and other PR boilerplate. It’s the bright line of moral and immoral, right and wrong, unethical and ethical. That’s the new ground we have to either choose to fight upon, or risk having the ambush staged there, catching us wholly unprepared.

Go ahead, ask… Watch the video and then use the comment section below to ask us: What’s right about the parts that bother you most. We’ll find farmers who look forward to the debate.

Navigating the New Foodism: Is the 'Unnatural' Practice of Feeding Corn to Cattle Causing E. coli Outbreaks?

Is corn feeding causing E. coli?

The recent deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany has breathed new life into the Internet amateur food scientists’ claim that “factory farming” of beef cattle is causing the epidemic. More specifically, the “unnatural” practice of feeding corn to cattle corn is causing the outbreak. The cure, then, according to those like Modern Serenity blogger Nick Andre, is simple: “The solution is ultimately to favor a grass-fed, pasture raised model of raising cattle rather than a feedlot based operation.”

But would such a system-wide change really affect the amount and severity of E. coli in the food system? Nebraska U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologists Elaine Berry and James Wells, who are headquartered at Clay Center, reviewed more than 280 existing scientific studies on the subject last year for a book chapter in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. Here’s what we know—and don’t know—based on the best of the research:

  • The Nebraska researchers caution that the potential effects of what cattle eat on how much and how often they shed the dangerous form of E. coli, O157:H7, must be deduced by looking at the overall large body of research, not from any single study. However, that’s the mistake pasture-feeding advocates often make by relying on a single study from 1998 that involved only three cows. In that study, cattle fed a ration made up of corn and ground soybeans, typical of what most cattle feedlots use, had higher total E. coli populations than cattle fed only hay. When the grain-fed cattle were abruptly switched to hay, the number of E. coli in their manure dropped by a thousand times, and the number that could pass through the acidic environment of the human stomach and thus posed a higher threat of illness declined by 100,000 times. However, what’s important to bear in mind about the study is this: No E. coli O157:H7 were detected, in any of the animals. The authors merely assumed the dangerous 0157:H7 strain would behave similarly to the generic E. coli they found. We know, based on research since, that’s not necessarily true.
  • When you do look at that larger body of research, it does seem that more E. coli, including the dangerous 0157:H7, does appear in the manure of cattle fed grain diets than those fed forage diets. But the conclusions of the numerous studies on the effect of switching to hay are often contradictory and far from clear, including studies showing cattle purposely infected with E. coli O157:H7 were potentially infective to cattle around them for more than ten times longer when fed hay than when fed corn. The bottom line is we know we can change the amount and severity of E. coli by changing the diet of cattle, but we don’t always know why, nor how to repeat it consistently. We do know feeding a grass-based diet is certainly no silver bullet.
  • The review demonstrates another thing we know to be true of E. coli O157:H7: It is naturally carried by animals never fed corn-based feedlot diets, including both tame and wild deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, rats, pigeons, gulls, rooks, starlings, and numerous other species of birds.

Corn and chopped corn plants (silage) are an important part of producing cattle to the quality level your customers demand, and they have been for more than a century. As any farmer who has had the unfortunate experience of leaving the gate to a corn field open around a group of cattle can tell you, cattle enjoy corn, whether or not they evolved to eat it. Cattle benefit from the nutritional profile of corn, when they are fed in the controlled environment of a feedlot that are almost always under the care of a professional nutritionist, and consumers benefit from the efficiency corn and soybean based cattle feeds bring by their lower beef prices.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment by clicking the link below. 

Partners

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.


Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.