There are some challenges ahead for meat. But good work will see us through, according to North American Meat Institute (NAMI) President and CEO Julie Anna Potts.
Potts spoke to the amassed members of the National Western Stock Show’s Red Meat Club on the evening of Jan. 16. She spoke about the future that she sees for meat in this country.
“I am bullish on our industry,” she said in introduction. “I am bullish on the meat industry in the world as well as the United States. I do have concerns about public perceptions.”
She explained how she has seen something of a sea change in the currents of public perception about livestock and meat: how it’s raised; its impact on people and the environment; and what can (or should) be done about it.
“There has been an incredible uptick—especially with young people—in concerns about the way their meat is produced as it impacts the environment and certainly as it impacts their nutrition.”
These consumer concerns impact and help shape legislation at the local level. She gave the example of “meatless Mondays” being adopted in some large cities as a supposed way to help stop climate change.
However, “local” efforts are increasingly having wider scale impacts. Potts asked the audience if they were familiar with California’s Prop 12. Few had so she explained.
The 2018 ballot measure was approved by 62.7 percent of California voters who went to the polls that year. The measure, now California law, established minimum space requirements for veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens, as well as banning the sale of veal, pork, or eggs not produced in accordance with those confinement standards. This ballot measure was similar in theme to 2008’s Prop 2 and the following AB-1437 law that was signed into law in 2010.
“I think it is a cast of many different local and state initiatives and ways in which local people would like to dictate animal handling practices around the country,” Potts said.
She explained that NAMI and other meat industry groups have challenged Prop 12 in court as unconstitutional for violating the Commerce Clause. There are two cases currently challenging Prop 12. The one NAMI is party to is currently in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Potts admitted that she doesn’t think the Ninth Circuit court will rule in their favor, but that the ultimate goal is to get the question before the Supreme Court.
“The idea is to get it to the Supreme Court and ask the Supreme Court to tell us whether a state, a large important state for our market, is going to be able to tell us how to raise animals. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did just decide that the same state could tell us that we couldn’t sell foie gras there. So, there is going to be a reckoning.”
Even though the Prop 12 law does not impact beef directly, Potts suggested her mostly beef industry audience take note: “[This] is something we all need to follow because right now selling pork into the California market—if it’s from a sow that is not in a breeding crate of the right size according to California voters—is currently illegal. There are no regulations, but that’s what the law says.”
Social concerns and sustainability
Potts noted a particular area of consumer perception that anyone producing meat should care about: young consumers’ perception of the ethicality of meat-eating.
“I worry that what we are seeing… [is] that somehow as a young person, you are a better person, you have the moral high ground, you are able to speak in a righteous way, if you give up meat or if you reduce meat in your diet. That tipping point hasn’t come yet, and it may not come for another six years or 12 years or two years, but that is the path that it feels like we’re on if you listen to the media.”
She reminded her audience that self-identified vegetarians and vegans are only about 5 percent of the population.
“There’s a lot of flexitarians, maybe some people are saying they are trying to eat less meat, but we still have 95 percent of U.S. citizens that are voting with their dollars to eat meat.”
Potts, like many in the cattle and beef industry, voiced frustration over how many definitions of “sustainability” there are. She offered a five-pillar take on beef sustainability: food safety; animal safety; worker safety; nutrition; and environment. She added later during the question and answer portion of her talk that economic sustainability for livestock producers and food producing companies is also part of that metric.
Unfortunately, she noted, most consumers define sustainability as a very narrow focus the environment.
“The below 30 crowd—the biggest thing that concerns them is climate change,” she pointed out.
Some of the fake meat makers are tapping that concern in how they market their products. While she acknowledged this marketing can “get under people’s skin,’ Potts said she doesn’t see the plant-based meat substitutes as a threat.
“I don’t think that plant-based alternative proteins are going to take much of the market share away from real meat,” she opined.
“[Consumers] like choice. They want to have choices. They don’t want to have someone telling them that they don’t have a choice. We may not like it and I just believe that we have a superior product. But I think it’s a flash in the pan. I think it’s going to be a niche—and let them have a niche.”
New communication strategies
Potts focused heavily on the need to change the industry’s consumer communication strategy.
“The research that we’ve done and have accepted as our path forward is that science—while it has served us well—is only part of what we need to be thinking about,” she summarized with apologies to the researchers in the room.
“Consumers make decisions three to five times more on shared values and emotions and what’s in their heart—because food is emotional—than they do on the facts. We have designed our whole communications effort and our future strategic direction for our industry, packers and processors, around this belief.”
She said that instead of the well-worn “tell your story” advice the industry has heard for years, we must continue to make improvements.
“We have to be able to do the right thing, prove that we’re doing the right thing, and then tell people about it. That’s also nothing brilliant and new. We’ve been doing that. We just have to do it more.”
She also stressed the necessity of being on the same page across the meat producing and selling industries.
“We need to be completely aligned. If we’re not, we’re sending the wrong message.”
On this point, however, Potts was hopeful, saying she sees the cattle, beef, meat, and food production/service industry groups more collaborative and consumer-focused than ever before.
“It’s a good thing because we’ve got some real challenges,” she reiterated, acknowledging that the communication needs of the future will be difficult in addition to all the other challenges she brought up.
“It’s all about building trust with consumers. It doesn’t mean chasing every antagonistic, anti-meat group that’s out there. It’s not about saying that we’re going to do something and then not doing. And it’s not about a PR campaign. We tried that.”
In closing, she pointed out that, as an industry we need to not preach to our own choir, nor do we need to try to convert vegetarians and vegans. Instead, we need to focus on what she called the “moveable middle;” the roughly 65 percent of the meat-eating American population that could be swayed by cultural pressures to eat less meat.
“There are going to be a lot of people where none of this stuff about climate change or even some of the nutritional stuff has even penetrated. We just need to make sure that eating a beautiful steak, having a breakfast that includes bacon, is something that you feel OK about,” she said.
“Give people permission to feel good about eating meat. That is the way we are approaching it.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor