There was lots of anticipation this past week when TV giant Oprah Winfrey aired an hour-long segment devoted to “Where our food comes from” on Oct. 14.
Those in agriculture wondered if Oprah would sling mud on the industry – or if she’d be able to capture the animal care that livestock producers provide while raising a safe – and economical – product that is destined for the food chain?
The premise for the show centered on the upcoming California ballot initiative called Proposition 2. It relates to the Standards for Confining Farm Animals, and if passed, calls for chickens, swine and calves to be able to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs in their cages or crates.
During the episode, Winfrey showed life-size models of the standard size of cages and crates for veal calves, chickens and hogs. Clips on the program also showed visits to an Illinois hog farm and a California egg operation to show confined livestock production methods compared to free range practices.
Add to that, comments made on the show by Wayne Pacelle, Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States, who said Proposition 2 would dramatically improve the way animals are raised. “These animals have the god-given right to move,” he said.
To that point, it wasn’t looking very positive for the livestock industry.
But, thankfully, Oprah did allow opponents of Proposition 2 to have a few minutes on the program. Ryan Armstrong, a third-generation egg farmer from California and Matt Kellogg, a hog producer from Illinois, did a commendable job in explaining their efforts as livestock producers.
Both said the confinement practices used are important for the protection of the animals – and to keep food prices affordable.
Armstrong emphasized that should Proposition 2 pass, it will likely make eggs produced in California too expensive for most consumers, creating the possibility that eggs will be imported from places without such animal housing laws. He also said that he would go out of business if he was forced to update his operation under Proposition 2’s guidelines.
All total, most folks I’ve visited with since the program aired believe the show provided a pretty balanced report – and that agriculture came out OK.
But, I’m not so sure. For any housewife – without a link to production agriculture – who was watching that show, it was a pretty graphic appeal seeing those small confinement crates on Oprah’s stage. I understand why livestock are raised that way, but most housewives are going to remember the images and not necessarily the words of the two young producers who were on the program.
Moreover, Oprah concluded her program by saying, “Now that you’ve heard both sides of the argument, you can start making conscious choices about the food you eat. She noted California voters can make their choice on Proposition 2 in November, and “the rest of us can vote at the grocery story with the food we buy for our tables.”
My guess is that housewives are going to be conjuring up the images of those crates the next time they are at the grocery store, and they’ll be steering straight for products that proclaim free-range and tout safe animal handling practices.
How do we combat that? The livestock industry needs to get proactive. We talk about listening to consumers; we talk about telling our story; we talk about doing a better job in selling who we are. Now we need to stop talking about it and speak up.
Our industry needs more producers being spokespeople for who they are and how they care for their land and livestock. Start by telling your relatives – include a quip in your annual Christmas card; go talk to your son or daughters grade school class – take pictures and show them what you do and how you ensure their food is safe; host tours for community groups – explain why farmers and ranchers are vital to the community to help preserve open space, wildlife, clean water – and most of all to produce safe food.
The beef industry also needs to move toward promoting the story of beef – featuring the producers who raise the cattle that winds up as a steak or pot roast on someone’s dinner table. Consumers are yearning to know where their beef came from – if they see a picture of Joe the Rancher from Montana they’ll likely connect with that. Pictures are powerful – Oprah knows that, that’s why she had those crates and cages on her stage.
The bottom line is that this issue is just in its infancy. With Oprah’s influence and her millions of viewers, the doors have now been flung wide open on the question “where does our food come from?” – and it’s a question that isn’t going to go away. Thus, it is a topic that livestock producers must be proactive, persistent, and confident in addressing. Fortunately, our industry has many positive points to make – we just need to speak up.