An Unlikely Partnership: Agriculture + Social Media
Social media often influences a consumer’s buying behavior, loyalty to brands, and even opinions on the health content of a product. It has the power to elevate a brand’s stature and the power to bring a company to its knees. In terms of the food supply chain, social media has provided a means to demand transparency— and agricultural enterprises are responding.
Today, fewer than 5% of Americans live on farms. The majority of our food is actually produced by a handful of large-scale farms. In fact, most consumers have no idea where their food is coming from or how it is produced. However, the digital age has created a heightened demand for transparency in our food supply chain.
Social media has become a source for current events. Breaking stories are now shared via social mediums faster than traditional news outlets can issue a full report. According to a 2016 PEW Research Study, 64% of US adults get their news from social media. Even President-elect Donald Trump is bypassing traditional media by using Twitter to reach his audience directly. And while transparency is a good thing, the increasing use of social media and instant access to information can result in the rapid spread of wrong information and leaves little room for correction. This allows an uninformed consumer to make a snap judgement and fall vulnerable to myths and misinformation.
Furthermore, in terms of agriculture, a general distrust of science adds significant challenges to the subject of food transparency. But, science is integral to agricultural innovation. In response this, farmers and agricultural companies are now using the same social media tools rewrite the (negative) narrative, in order to instill customer trust and brand loyalty.
The Curious Case of Finely Textured Beef
A perfect example of the power social media wields is the case of finely textured beef, inappropriately dubbed “pink slime.” Let’s examine how the spread of misinformation caused a 3.4 million pound decrease in meat sales per week.
In 2012, ABC News aired a series of stories on (lean) “finely textured beef.” The hysteria caused by this initial story is an example of crisis communication. It was the perfect storm of hyper, overzealous media and uninformed consumers.
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”Mark Twain
The event caught the beef industry completely off guard and the bias media coverage— which quickly spread from ABC News to USA Today, the New York Times, and other mainstream media outlets, before hitting the blogging community where petitions began to circulate— put a negative spin on the finely textured beef product.
The intense negative media forced a nutritious, affordable, safe, 95% lean, and 100% pure beef product out of school lunches, grocery store shelves, and many fast food restaurants.
10 years ago, only 7% of the U.S. population used one or more social networking sites. These days, that figure has increased to 64%! And of those who use the internet, the outstanding majority (76%) use social media.
Unfortunately, the average consumer did not understand the safe and established process of separating meat from beef trimmings. The “pink slime” story was stoked like a wildfire by media outlets and as a result, at least 4 processing plants were closed down and several thousand people lost their jobs. The food processing company Beef Products Inc. (BPI) went from 2.3 million dollars of profit per week to roughly $538,000 weekly loss.
A sustainable processing practice that makes the most of limited natural resources and produces an extra 25 pounds of lean meat per animal still has not fully recovered.
In fact, BPI sued ABC News for defamation and business damages, and in June, 2107 a settlement was reached in the $1.9 billion lawsuit against the network. (updated June 2017)
The “pink slime” narrative was a huge money maker for ABC News. According to Slate Magazine, “reconstrued as pink slime, the beef trimmings became a cash cow for the media. According to the lawsuit, ABC had dropped behind CBS in the ratings for 25- to 54-year-olds not long before the network began its coverage of the scandal. By the end of “Slimeageddon”, it was back in front and by a broader margin” (Slate.com). ABC News perpetuated this story in order to keep their ratings high without presenting the full story.
The irony in the lean finely textured beef (FTB) event was that, amidst all the media frenzy, no one ever consulted a scientist or food safety expert. Media outlets capitalized on the lack of understanding of the process of FTB, and this quickly brought an industry to a halt.
Food Transparency and Trust
The FTB event in 2012 sent a clear signal to food and processing companies to be more attentive to the rising demands for food transparency. Websites such as BPI’s Beef is Beef and Cargill’s Ground Beef helped consumers demystify the FTB process. Studies and focus groups verified that once consumers were shown how FTB is produced, their concerns and behaviors began to change. Transparency leads to increased brand loyalty and perceived brand worth. Additionally, faster feedback to customers is imperative, as that helps earn their trust.
In a Center for Food Integrity survey, respondents were asked who they hold most responsible for transparency: food companies, farmers, grocery stores or restaurants. “The study shows clearly that consumers hold food companies most responsible for demonstrating transparency in all six areas,” CEO Charlie Arnot says. “Consumers want all the details — the good, the bad and the ugly — so they can decide for themselves.
“Consumers want all the details — the good, the bad and the ugly — so they can decide for themselves.”
Science… Skepticism… and Agriculture
The truth of the matter is, Americans do not trust science. There are many plausible reasons for this: multi-syllable words that end in “phosphate”, “acid” or “sulfate”, sci-fi imagery of white lab coats hovering over bubbling test tubes; confusion when scientists don’t always agree on study results; lengthy lectures or scientific reports written for scientists and not consumers; fear of the unknown; or conflicts with a person’s personal, religious, or political views.
The reality is science, technology, and biotechnology have all contributed to a more productive, safer, and sustainable era in agriculture. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between grower and consumer. This disconnect has created doubt and fueled distrust in our food supply chain.
A consumer’s idea of farming: idyllic images of red barns, rolling hillsides, and happily grazing farm animals, is not in line with the reality of farming— large combines working acres and acres of soybeans or corn, automated milking facilities, crowded hen houses and feedlots of hundreds of cows.
Innovations in farming and food processing are helping to meet the challenges of producing more food using less energy and environmental resources in addition to keeping food affordable while meeting changing consumer preferences and getting food products to market quickly. In fact, USDA researchers, universities, and small businesses scientists collectively filed 222 new inventions, 94 patents awarded, and 125 new patent applications for agriculture related discoveries in 2015. But this is usually lost on the consumer.
A consumer’s lack of awareness and understanding leaves the door wide open for misinformation and influence from groups who use their social media platforms to shape the views and opinions of unknowing consumers. In a recent Pew Research study on science literacy, 79% of scientists said that the media doesn’t distinguish between “well-founded” and “not well-founded” scientific research.
Unfortunately, these “anti” groups and blogging communities are quite adept at leveraging social media and playing into the public’s vulnerabilities regarding how food is processed and how it travels along the supply chain.
A Partnership – Agriculture and Social Media
Farmers and agricultural collaboratives are making a big effort to bring the consumer closer to their food. Research shows that 60% of consumers think farmers and ranchers are trustworthy, making them one of the most trusted sources for information on food production. Some examples of this are the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Ask the Farmers, America’s Farmers, and Fair Oaks Farms.
The social media tools that challenge agriculture are also being used to tell agriculture’s story. Farmers, commodity groups, and other pro-ag advocates — some like to call themselves “agvocates” — are turning to the same social media tools used by those who denigrate ag to join the conversation.
The Bottom Line:
Social media has tremendous power to influence, but it is important to be an “educated consumer” and verify sources or look for hidden agendas. The agriculture industry has made great strides increasing transparency and traceability over recent years, but consumers demand this trend continues. There is no denying the ability of transparency to increase consumer trust, and as much as social media can be used to vilify an industry, it can also be used as a proactive tool to join the conversation about how our food is grown and processed.
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