Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Having the beef conversation

In case you missed it, the Beef Checkoff recently released a handy pocket guide to having the beef conversation with non-beef producing and or non/agricultural producing consumers. You can download a copy here or the .pdf version directly.

If you don’t have access to a computer contact the Beef Board at 303-220-9890.

Kimball, Nebraska residents line up for the annual Farmers’ Day hamburger feed last September. The hamburgers came from locally sourced beef. Celebrations such as Farmers’ Day provide producers an opportunity to share a “beef conversation” with consumers. Click the picture for a larger image.

 The guide is a tool to help beef producers have a positive and informational food animal conversation with consumers. Producers should first study the guide and become familiar with the suggestions for having a positive conversation. These are skills that few farmers and ranchers practice routinely. The guide can be printed in a pocket-sized format, allowing producers to keep one close at hand in most situations, should they choose to do so. You never know when the beef conversation opportunity might pop up.

I had the opportunity the other day when I picked up my niece and her fiancé at the Denver airport. The couple are from California and just beginning their post-college careers in teaching and law.

They’re both bright kids. Within 10 minutes of the two-and-a-half hour car ride home, each was probing my knowledge of food in general and beef in particular. They began the conversation, which wasn’t covered in the guide, but which might be rather less than unusual these days when so much food information is so easily available.

It was a good conversation and I was able to address a few of their  slightly skewed misconceptions about beef in general and food animal production specifically. As I explained taurine and other nutritionally essential free amino acids (see last week’s column), I realized that my niece was checking my facts via her smart phone. That’s something to keep in mind. Technology-savvy consumers can fact check you nearly instantly these days! The flow of the conversation didn’t allow me to use the checkoff guide as a checklist, but having studied the guide helped me keep up my end of an effective conversation. Like any tool, the guide only works if you use it and use it correctly. The guide makes excellent points and covers topics that are important to consumers.

The first point the guide makes is to simply have a conversation. Don’t give a lecture. Few of us enjoy being lectured to, whether we’re producers or consumers. Listen to the questions, acknowledging that you understand the consumer’s question or concern. Repeating the question back is often a good way to demonstrate your understanding.

Some of the questions asked and concerns raised may be based on a faulty understanding of what we do an how we do it. To your mind, those questions may sound accusatory. Occasionally they will be bluntly accusatory. Don’t let this put you on the defensive. Once you shift from having a conversation to defending a position, you have entered the ugly and unprofitable realm of argument. You both lose, and you’ve let down the side.

The guide advises producers to use the mnemonic E.A.S.E. Engage. Acknowledge. Share. Earn Trust.

ENGAGE consumers in everyday situations. At the market, at a town barbeque, at a farmers’ market, and on the internet through social media and the comments section of ag-related on-line news stories and opinion pieces.

ACKNOWLEDGE consumer questions and concerns. Remember that for many – perhaps even most – consumers, beef production is a great unknown. Their lack of knowledge usually comes from lack of experience. You are quite probably as ignorant of  the details and nuances of their job as they are of yours.

Consumers questions and comments are just that – questions and comments. Most are not meant to criticize you personally. But behind every question and critique lie real concerns about food quality, safety, and humane treatment of livestock. Such concerns are completely appropriate. We all have to eat to survive, and we all eat the same food. Consumers have seen and read some awful things about food and food production. Unfortunately, some of the bad things have been true. Be willing to forthrightly admit that some of those bad things have happened. Be prepared to explain how the industry is addressing those things and constantly striving to improve.

Not all of the information consumers have seen and read is true, however. Be prepared to point out the misconceptions and to explain why they are wrong. Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB or more popularly “pink slime”) is a good example. If you understand what LFTB is and how it’s processed, you can speak with confidence on the subject. But be careful. If you don’t know, or are only “pretty sure” you know, the real story on LFTB your best answer might be, “I don’t know. Can I check up on that and get back to you?” Don’t forget that today’s consumer can quickly check your facts.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” is probably the best answer to use when you don’t completely understand any question. When it comes to processing beef, most of us are nearly as much in the dark as the consumer. How many of us have visited slaughterhouses and watched the process?

The guide says to remember the three C’s: We CARE about the same issues you do (we all eat the same food); We’re CAPABLE of humanely raising food animals while caring for the environment; we’re CONTINUOUSLY improving our operations to produce better beef and meet consumer expectations and demands.

Once you’ve answered questions and concerns, ask the consumer if you can SHARE your point of view. Here’s where, without being pushy and without lecturing, you can share your experience regarding the questions and concerns you’ve discussed. This is simply telling your story. Don’t be too long-winded, and try to leave out as much jargon as possible. Be ready to answer politely and in appropriate detail questions about topics that seem self-evident to you. Those things may not be common knowledge to the consumer. “What’s a heifer, I thought only steers became beef.” Why do you give sick animals antibiotics, everybody knows that’s dangerous for consumers.” etc. Don’t take a condescending tone with the consumer, and don’t assume the person you’re talking with has a completely flawed understanding of production agriculture.

EARN TRUST. If you can’t earn the consumer’s trust, you’ve wasted the time of both parties, and you’ve probably damaged the food animal cause. You may have caused an open mind to permanently snap shut against food animal production.

So turn your defense mechanism off. Don’t take questions or concerns personally. If you can’t do this, leave the job for someone who can. But remember, there are very few beef producers and more than 312 million U.S. consumers. It’s in your best interest to train yourself to be non-defensive, affable, friendly, and approachable. The food animal industry as a whole is vital, and more important than any single producer.

Respect the consumer. This should go without saying. Every human being deserves to be treated with basic respect. Remember that the consumer you are talking to is considering whether to buy your product.

Americans are at liberty to choose the foods they eat and the lifestyles they live. Even a strict vegan or an anti-meat activist, each of whom have likely made up their minds on the subject and aren’t about to change, will remember that you were polite and respectful. And that attitude might be just enough to open some closed minds.

When sharing your story, if you’re so inclined, consider offering the consumer a tour of your operation. There’s a lot involved in such a venture, so think it through before you make the offer.

There’s more information and more tips in the guide. I suggest you download or otherwise obtain a copy, study it, carry it with you, and when the opportunity comes up, take up the challenge of being a beef advocate. Helping consumers understand our expertise, commitment to quality, and our shared concern about the quality of food we provide to everyone – both consumers and ourselves – may be one of the most critical things we can do to survive in the coming years.

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