February 2011 was an interesting month for Cargill, Inc. The company was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and her crew wanted to tour and shoot videos of a Colorado feedlot and packing plant. While many would be nervous about appearing on Oprah’s show due to her reputation for sensational reporting and high-drama segments, Cargill took on the project. Moreover, the company shared the lessons it learned at the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation Animal Care and Handling Conference in Kansas City, MO, on Oct. 19. During his talk, entitled “Transparency and the Media,” Mike Martin, Cargill's director of media relations, offered his thoughts on the segment, which also featured a one-week vegan challenge for Oprah’s staffers.
“The best defense is a good offense, and having the opportunity to share Cargill’s focus on food safety and quality on the Oprah Show was great because it allowed us to balance the statements made by vegan activist Kathy Freston and foodie-author Michael Pollan, who has been incredibly critical of the beef industry in the past. We focused on messages of transparency, food safety and animal care, as we toured the plant and feedlot with reporter Lisa Ling,” explains Martin.
After her tour, Ling said she still eats meat but has a new appreciation for where it comes from. Cargill’s Nicole Johnson-Hoffman conducted the tour and had positive sound bytes on the show. A few of these included: “I would not ridicule people who believe that you shouldn’t eat animals, but I would say that we are committed to doing it right. And I believe that when animals are handled with dignity and harvested carefully, that’s the natural order of things. Whether you eat meat or not, I think we’re all on the same path trying to figure out the right way to get to good health for our families and environmental sustainability and humane treatment. We’ll find a better result together, even if we have perhaps different perspectives or different beliefs.”
A total of 7.3 million U.S. households watched the first airing of the show, which received thousands of online comments debating vegan diets and congratulating the beef industry on a job well done.
“As we look at the results of that show, we learned a lot of important lessons. What’s most important to think about is that, by appearing on Oprah, we deprived our critics of 10 minutes of the show’s content; that’s 25% of the total non-commercial airtime. Of the many emails we received after the show, the overwhelming majority can only be described as glowing,” says Martin.
“We prepared Johnson-Hoffman with talking points before the show aired,” adds Martin. “We could have turned down the chance to appear on this show, but it gave us the opportunity to share our story, and I think it turned out well for the beef industry.”
Transparency in agriculture is something the consumer is demanding; and with strong ethics, sound science and a tradition of caring for animals, being stewards of the land and producing safe beef, the truth is on agriculture’s side. Have you told your agriculture story today?