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Understanding beef: NCBA professional suggests becoming well-rounded

Written by Natasha Wheeler

Fort Collins, Colo. – “As an individual, be as educated as possible. The best thing we can do for ourselves is become better educated and more well-rounded,” suggested Mandy Carr-Johnson, senior executive director of science and product solutions at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

Carr-Johnson spoke in Fort Collins, Colo. on Jan. 9 at the International Livestock Forum in Fort Collins, Colo., sharing market research that indicates consumers' lack understanding about the beef industry but want to learn more.

Gaining information

“Consumers don’t know what’s happening, so they fill that void with all kinds of information. The opportunity for us is that we do have that experience,” she explained.

To provide an example, Carr-Johnson brought up the term “factory farming.” Through market research surveys, NCBA discovered that, although consumers have a negative perception of the term, they have very little familiarity with what it actually means.

“Their perspective might be based on an image they saw in a news article or online, what their friends showed them or maybe just what they perceive in their minds because they haven’t really seen the environment themselves,” she continued.

Producers don’t often think of their operations as factory farming, but individuals outside of the industry are unfamiliar with how production practices are really implemented.

“We are going to be faced with filling the information gap for years to come,” she remarked.

Antibiotics

Antibiotic use in cattle systems is another management practice that consumers have negative feelings about, although they have very little familiarity with how or why they are used.

“We did focus groups and large consumer population discussions, and most consumers are very much in favor of using antibiotics to treat a sick animal. They don’t want animals to suffer because they are not being treated for a disease or illness they have,” Carr-Johnson remarked.

Research about consumers and their understanding of antimicrobial resistance netted similar results, showing that consumers have very little familiarity with what resistance is or how it works.

“We know that resistance is going to be a challenge for the industry to face in the next 10 years,” she commented.

“As an industry, we are currently working on research to better understand it so we can be actively engaged in a conversation with good data,” she added.

Consumers and operation practices

Introducing consumers to operation practices is one way producers may be able to bridge that gap in consumer understanding, bringing them closer to a realistic understanding about how beef production works.

In another study, NCBA asked consumers about their perspectives on beef production, questioning how positively or negatively they perceive the industry.

“Then we did a lot of tours. We took groups of individuals to cow/calf operations, stocker/backgrounder operations, feedlots and sometimes even to the packer,” Carr-Johnson explained.

In survey data, after the tours, consumers responded much more positively to the beef industry.

“Most people have never had an experience with understanding how cattle are raised,” she stated.

Complexity

Most consumers didn’t realize how complex the beef production system is or how many people are involved in creating a beef product.

“It’s a very complex system that may be much more complex than consumers think, especially compared to how other animals are raised and produced, but also to how other food products are produced,” Carr-Johnson continued.

Although consumers don’t necessarily understand the full complexity of beef production, they do know there are multiple sectors, and they want to know about all of the different stages involved.

“We know from our market research that incorporating all of the people involved is more believable than only talking about one piece at a time,” she explained. “If we decide not to talk about the feedlot, they think we’re hiding something. If we decide not to talk about the packing plant, they want to know what we’re not telling them. We have to talk about it as a whole system and not hide things.”

However, she added that using an appropriate amount of transparency is also important to ensure that the consumer is not overwhelmed and scared away.

Educating ourselves

Carr-Johnson also noted that many individuals within the industry might not understand factions they are not directly involved in. She challenged people to learn more about other segments of the industry.

“If we haven’t had an experience with of all the sectors, we need to make it a priority to get it. We should find out how to take a tour, visit with a producer or go to a feedlot if we’ve never been to one. We need to understand what’s going on so we can explain it with real facts,” she said.

Carr-Johnson also believes that working together as an industry for the greater good of everyone is part of the process.

“We know from market research that being able to explain that the industry is working together is effective to the consumer. We have to be able to work together and be able to talk about it,” she stated.

Training tools

Producers and other ag-industry professionals also have a number of other tools they can use to learn more about the industry.

“We can take free online training courses, like the Masters of Beef Advocacy course, that gives us coverage across many topics. We can use websites based on data, like Facts About Beef. We can be Beef Quality Assurance certified and understand what that means,” she suggested.

Being actively involved in industry-related organizations also makes a difference.

“Wherever our passion is for whatever organizations we want to be affiliated with, we should be educated and understand what they’re working on. We can all be someone who makes a difference if we are actively engaged in the industry,” she said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..