Ignoring public opinion of food production is a recipe for disaster

Professor Temple Grandin

Professor Temple Grandin

My friend and Feedstuffs colleague Megan Brown shared an extremely surprising article last week under the headline “Temple Grandin not working on Animal Welfare for consumers benefit any more.” WHAT?

Temple Grandin, if you aren’t acquainted, is the nation’s foremost authority on humane treatment and handling of food animals. She has literally written the book on the best practices in animal husbandry, and the leading meat producers in the world call on Professor Grandin to design their facilities.

Regional radio personality Trent Loos, in calling Grandin out on his program, said this: “It is time everyone realize that Temple Grandin is beating her own drum and not working for animal welfare or the consumers’ food supply.”

The source of Loos’ ire was an article in the Concord Monitor reviewing a book by Sy Montgomery in which Grandin is quoted on a number of issues including bob veal. Grandin is presented in the article as “an unlikely hero” for what is essentially a children’s book. I’ve not read the Montgomery book, so I’ll skip that issue and focus on the broader context of Loos’ ongoing criticism of Grandin.

After you’ve listened to Loos’ initial assault on Grandin, read her response, which Loos posted on his blog. Here’s where it gets interesting. On his Facebook page teasing Grandin’s appearance on his radio program next week, Loos elucidated his concern: “Public opinion is all she references, ZERO science in the response… think my point proven…”

In other words, because Temple Grandin believes that consumer opinion matters, her research and expertise are irrelevant to the discussion.

A number of commenters on the post shared Loos’ opinion, parroting that agriculture must rely on sound science, and downplaying any assertion that consumers have the right to an opinion, and more importantly, ignoring the fact that consumer opinion is the only thing that matters when it comes to how they choose to spend their food dollars every single day.

The attack on Professor Grandin was extremely ill-advised, and underscores an ongoing issue we have in this industry: bunker mentality. Far too many of our friends and colleagues continue to ignore the realities Dr. Grandin so eloquently addressed in her response letter.

While we should absolutely hold our heroes accountable, Temple Grandin is one of those industry experts who is fairly well beyond reproach at this point in her career. Even so, that isn’t the real issue with “calling out” Temple Grandin. The arguments against her positions completely ignore the fact that she is 100% correct: if consumers aren’t comfortable with a product or practice in food animal production, it doesn’t matter what the science says.

The “ick factor” is real, and we have to build a bridge and get over it. It is time – as I wrote in Feedstuffs more than a year ago – to “YouTube-proof Agriculture.” As I’ve told thousands of farmers in my keynote addresses over the past year, you have to ask yourself what your non-farm friends would think if they visited your farm, and if you’re not comfortable with the answer, change what you’re doing.

This is issue #1, it isn’t going away, and those who refuse to accept it are dooming our industry to the whims of its enemies.

As Megan helped me point out last year, transparency in the marketplace is critical, and we have to be willing to be upfront with consumers about what we do in producing food. The LFTB “pink slime” debacle proved quite clearly that we ignore public perception of food and agriculture products and practices at our own peril.

Here’s my point on the issue of taking recognized experts like Temple Grandin to task: while it is critical that we maintain our own ability to reason, think clearly and make our own informed decisions, we can’t opt to ignore those experts we’ve relied on time and again simply because we don’t like their position.

That’s essentially what we have here – Grandin has been held, by industry and consumer consensus, as the eminent scholar on animal welfare and husbandry. Simply because some in our industry don’t like what she has to say now, we can’t just choose to ignore her. Either she is an expert, or she isn’t, but we can’t arbitrarily pick and choose the research we like and that we don’t. Science is important, but ultimately irrelevant if it doesn’t resonate with consumers.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

3 Responses to “Ignoring public opinion of food production is a recipe for disaster”

  1. This is about producer’s ability to provide affordable animal protein to the world. Animal protein producers cannot SUSTAIN their operations with the regulations being implemented. This movement will ultimately affect every consumer’s choice in food purchases. Look at the EU. We cannot ignore the facts. Too much negative emphasis about our centuries old sustaining animal husbandry practices are being perpetually placed in front of consumers often times by our own.

    The majority of animal ag producers have made improvements as knowledge was gained and ultimately we have collectively sustained a growing world of consumers. There is an agenda being pushed to eliminate animal protein from our diets…this is also a fact.
    Several months ago I listened to a panel discussion of KC Mommy Bloggers their ultimate concerns: the financial burdens of feeding their growing families. They also were interested in the family who raised the meat they were eating and the difference between all natural and organic but their main concern was putting affordable protein on their family’s plate.
    As producers we may no longer be able to offer that the path we’re on.

    • There has to be a balance. Frankly, food production – especially animal processing – isn’t pretty even in one-off situations, let alone in mass production facilities (even the best of them). We can care for the animals, make their lives as peaceful as possible prior to slaughter, but in the end we still slaughter them. We shock them, hang them upside down, and bleed them out. Theoretically they’re unconscious or dead before that, but not always. You can’t “YouTube-proof” that. It’s accepted practice, but it’s brutal to watch if you’re not accustomed to the practice. It doesn’t make it “wrong” so much as potentially disturbing to lay people.

      People know it happens, but most of them don’t want to see it, and when even ordinary, well-documented and accepted, food processing practices are shown, people can get upset or be misled about what it means.

      In regards to “pink slime”, I’m a little torn. To see it backed by someone such as Professor Grandin offers some amount of comfort, but in the end she’s correct – consumers will vote with their wallet and their conscious, generally in that order. What we need to be careful of is crying wolf – calling out things that may not be quite so bad when things that are much worse are going on in the background.

      As for affordability – yes, the LFTB process indeed helps to reduce the cost of beef, but if the only way we can put affordable protein on the table is to use these types of processes, there’s a much larger problem. Something in the chain needs to change so that farmers are paid fairly, consumers get a reasonable price, and we all have the necessary variety of foods (subsidies tend to limit food choices – fruits are “specialty crops”) to ensure a healthy diet.

  2. This link explains the concerns and thoughts from the eyes of true grassroots prodcers…