Fact-Checking for Media’s Depiction of Agriculture

10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — Who is the farmer’s customer? Is it the harried housewife, isolated at home? If that’s what you think, Penn State Extension poultry specialist Greg Martin would say, “Not so fast.”

Martin spoke about agricultural advocacy and the need for an open, honest conversation about farming at Monday’s Penn State Poultry Science Health Seminar.

“What do people think about us? Whether it’s true or untrue, it’s important,” he said.

Gone are the days of housewives making all of the food choices. Food purchases are made by a wider demographic and most likely do not follow the traditional categories of the past.

The media has a large role in how people make buying decisions. Some media provide a positive message about agriculture. Others cast it in a difficult light.

This summer, Chipotle rolled out its YouTube commercial “The Scarecrow.” The ad has surpassed 7 million views as it promotes its ideas of sustainable agriculture. Martin said it uses every “Disney effect” to its fullest to stir its audience’s emotions.

The film has an overalls-clad scarecrow who works at a factory called Crow Foods Inc. The song “Pure Imagination” plays in the background as the scarecrow goes sadly through his day.

The factory-produced food is fit for a science-fiction pot-boiler. One tube produces a substance called 100 percent Beef-ish. Chickens injected with fluid double in size. Cows have haunted eyes and are trapped in a tight metal boxes.

The scarecrow goes home, discovers some fresh vegetables on his farm and proceeds to harvest his fresh produce and ultimately opens up a burrito stand next to Crow Foods with a sign urging customers to “cultivate a better world.”

Martin said the Chipolte video taps into people’s emotions for wanting more.

But in the next video that Martin showed, a tractor-trailer from a commercial food supplier is unloading conventionally produced food products at a Chipotle store.

The video was taken at 5 a.m. by a nearby resident complaining about the loud idling of the truck.

Customers should be informed, but there is an abundance of both accurate and inaccurate information available through multiple media streams.

With less than 1 percent of the American population engaged in animal agriculture, it becomes important to correct misinformation when possible.

Martin said he contacted a poultry company after it started running a consumer ad campaign saying its chickens were fed a steroid-free diet.

The problem is that it’s illegal to feed steroids to poultry, so the ad is misleading. The ad still runs, but now it has a disclaimer at the end, stating this fact.

“When I am in the public, I am still getting questions regarding steroids in poultry feed,” he said, in part because of that commercial.

But it’s more than reacting to bad press or misinformation <\h>— it’s being proactive.

Foster Farms, a California-based poultry-processing company, found itself in the midst of a food-safety crisis with the discovery of a salmonella outbreak tied to chicken processed in its plants earlier this month.

The plants are still running, in part, Martin believes, because Foster Farms developed plans and responded quickly. USDA did not close its plants because the company is implementing a 90-day review of its systems.

Foster Farms has been very open about what is happening at the plants, Martin said.

“You have to have some sort of plan together for when the worst happens,” he said.

Most farmers would not be comfortable dealing with a media maelstrom. However, having a plan can make a significant difference in public perception.

Martin suggests poultry companies have someone ready to address the media and to assist farmers if an incident occurs.

He spoke of a recent open house held by a poultry farmer after retrofitting his barns. The neighbors were amazed and pleased with the changes.

Martin said the open house solved many of the concerns in the neighborhood, just because people were able to walk into the barn and view for themselves what was really happening.

In contrast, he told of a farmer who spread manure next to a house that had a wedding reception in the backyard, a move that he said would not help with neighborly relations.

Martin said it’s also important to spend time educating students. He often works with teachers, bringing a poultry-centered science lesson to local schools.

“Schools are the new battlefront for agriculture,” he said. “Any time you have the opportunity to speak to a high school class, take the time and do it.”

He said it’s a way to provide an “aha moment” to students because ultimately they are future consumers. Experiences in school can be powerful in forming long-term opinions.

“In 20 years, they are our customers,” he said. “How we engage these folks is important.”

Having a strong Internet and social-media presence is valuable. For example, Martin showed the website of the Ohio Pork Board, which features YouTube videos, recipes and teacher resources.

Martin thinks Extension could help high school teachers by developing tools that ite agriculture into science lesson plans.

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