America is getting “greener,” at least in the minds of consumers concerned about the environment.

From Al Gore's film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to activists who condemn “factory farming,” the “greening of America” is a part of pop culture that is swaying an uninformed public in believing animal agriculture is hurting the environment. And, to an extent at least, it's successful. Some actually believe cutting back on beef consumption will help “save the planet.”

Correcting this misinformation and better informing consumers about beef production and environmental stewardship is a chore the industry must and is taking on, says Rick McCarty, vice president of issues management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Fighting against the anti-beef forces is nothing new for the industry. But it's apparent that with the onslaught of more news coverage and an increase in anti-beef and anti-agriculture Internet sites, as well as ongoing calls for more environmental action by activists, the need for the industry's role in educating consumers is greater.

Countering consumer misconceptions about beef's role in the environment is part of the industry's checkoff-funded “Beef — from Pasture to Plate” program. A major segment of the program is contained at www.BeefFromPastureToPlate.org, an NCBA-managed site that helps tell the story of cattle producers' commitment to providing wholesome beef and protecting the land, water and air.

But there are a lot of anti-beef lies and rhetoric to wade through; propaganda put out by environmental groups and activists with tens of millions of dollars in their coffers. They prey on consumers stuck in “the fuzzy spot.”

“Consumers don't know how beef gets from the pasture to the plate,” McCarty says. “They see cattle grazing peacefully in a pasture as they drive down a highway. Their next encounter with beef is a set of choices at the meat case or a steak on their plate. In between the pasture and the plate is a knowledge vacuum we call the fuzzy spot.”

Activists discovered the potential of that fuzzy spot years ago, and they exploit it by attempting to fill that vacuum with misinformation. McCarty uses the popular Wikipedia website as an example, in that the site is often visited by web users in search of information. But not everything on Wikipedia is factual.

“The result of widespread misinformation is a new concept called Wikiality,” he says. “It involves the belief that something is true if enough people believe it's true. The more something gets repeated, the less likely it is to be questioned until it reaches the point that it's considered conventional wisdom.”

Activists, such as those who produced “The Meatrix” — a series of short, animated web films that attack so-called factory farming and have been seen by an astonishing 15 million Internet visitors — have an objective of convincing consumers that “the steak on their plate comes at a high cost in terms of health, safety and the environment,” McCarty says.

They decry “factory farms,” such as feedyards and other confined animal operations, as promoters of animal cruelty, BSE, E. coli, cancer, heart disease and water and air pollution. Examples of the message being put out by activists and others can be found at www.sustainabletable.org/issues.

Public opinion changing

The misinformation that meat produced at a feedyard or similar facility harms the environment has truly changed some public opinion. An NCBA-conducted, checkoff-funded survey found 32% of consumer respondents planning to “likely cut back on” beef consumption for environmental reasons; 16% said they already had.

“This points out that the whole greening of America thing is real,” McCarty says, adding that 43% of those surveyed indicated they were likely to buy more organic food in order to reduce greenhouse gases.

Local, sustainable, organically produced food is promoted by “The Meatrix” and by a wide range of activist groups. The Chipotle Grill chain of restaurants even used the slogan, “Get antibiotics from your doctor, not from your beef.”

The greening movement has certainly increased consumer interest in natural and organic beef, however, opening a niche-marketing door for some cattlemen. These entrepreneurs produce and market beef raised without antibiotics, growth hormones and animal byproduct feed supplements. Most produce natural beef not because they believe conventional beef products are bad, but because of the growing demand and market premiums.

Natural beef is available at most supermarket meat counters; most taste good, are tender and carry a USDA stamp. They're right up there with other branded cuts. Many feedyards have pens and rations devoted to natural animals. A premium of $5 or more/cwt. is common, though production costs also tend to be higher.

“These products are offering consumers a shortcut through the fuzzy spot to peace of mind, but they pay more money to take the shortcut,” McCarty says.

Greening is pressuring food producers and marketers into decision-making and actions they think benefit customers, employees, shareholders, communities — and the environment. “Companies are taking this corporate social responsibility seriously,” McCarty says.

Clearing it up

The fuzzy spot gets more and more murky to consumers confused about what's organic, what's natural and what is sustainable agriculture. “USDA has established standards for organic products, and if beef carries the certified organic label, consumers can find out how it was produced,” McCarty says.

“Still, checkoff-funded research has found significant consumer confusion about the difference between organic, natural, grass-fed and grain-fed beef.

“Food is no longer viewed essentially as a source of nutrients or eating as a source of pleasure,” McCarty says. “For many people, food has become a way of defining themselves; it is a social platform.

“The beef industry is increasing its capabilities for using the Internet and other resources better in efforts to get the industry's positive message across to help people understand the facts behind beef production and its impact on the environment.”

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.

From pasture to plate

The industry has its own version of how producers and feeders employ environmental stewardship — the www.BeefFromPastureToPlate.org site. It guides visitors through the stages of beef production, from the cow-calf operation, feedyard and ultimately to the meat counter.

It uses a series of testimonials and producer profiles to help inform visitors about all facets of beef production. Ranchers and feeders from Texas, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, Michigan, Arizona, Massachusetts and other states are profiled through short videos. They cite the history of their operations and guide viewers through their production practices, animal welfare and dedication to preserving the environment.

“Cattle farmers and ranchers are credible with the public,” says Rick McCarty, vice president of issues management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “They're viewed as honest, hard-working and an embodiment of American values. Nobody knows beef production like beef producers and nobody is more credible to tell that story.”

“From Pasture to Plate” helps create a positive marketing environment for promotional efforts such as the “Beef. It's What's For Dinner” campaign, McCarty says. And it provides a better understanding of the overall industry and how projects like the Environmental Stewardship Award Program help ensure a sustainable and wholesome product.