The gap between animal-agriculture and consumer perceptions of food production continues to grow, and we need to communicate better with the general public. Most participants at last week’s Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholder Summit would agree with that statement. But once the discussion shifted to specific messages and methods for addressing that perception gap, the opinions were, well, less in alignment.

The theme for this year’s summit was “Activists at the door: Protecting animals, farms, food and consumer confidence.” The first speaker was Joe Miller, general counsel for Rose Acre Farms, a large egg-production operation. Miller focused largely on “livestock interference” legislation, or the so-called “Ag-Gag” laws passed in eight states and under consideration in others.

As a lawyer, Miller approached the issue from a legal standpoint, stressing the laws protect businesses from spying and clandestine videos, but do not prevent whistle-blowing or reporting of abuse on farms or ranches.

Miller stressed that an expectation of privacy in businesses and some limitations on First Amendment free-speech rights are well established in U.S. law. He also noted that most of the new laws require immediate reporting if employees observe incidents of abuse, while animal-rights groups have withheld clandestine videos for months while gathering more evidence. Thus he says the laws will promote better animal care.

Opponents of these laws maintain that consumers have a right to see how food is produced, but Miller said they really have no such right. He was speaking from a legal perspective, but his statement drew criticism from several later speakers and panel members who insisted whether consumers have a legal right or not, the industry has an obligation to provide the public with information and transparency.

Miller acknowledged agriculture needs to engage consumers in a discussion of animal welfare and other issues of concern in livestock production. His statement that “they don’t need to understand us, we need to understand them” found agreement among the audience and other speakers.

Kathy Keiffer, a broadcaster who produces a food-issue program on the Heritage Radio Network had a different perspective. Saying consumer awareness is the biggest change occurring in the food business, Keiffer maintained that agriculture makes a mistake by responding to consumer concerns in a defensive, crisis mode. We try to shoot down activists while stonewalling, redirecting blame and maintaining a veil of secrecy. She stressed that activists continue to catch animal-abuse offenders in spite of the industry claiming the videos are isolated incidents. The farm-protection bills send the wrong message, she insisted, by indicating farmers and ranchers are unwilling to let the public know how livestock are raised.

Keiffer, who stressed she is a meat lover who supports livestock producers, also said mainstream animal agriculture needs to reconsider its defense of some uses of antibiotics and beta agonists. She cited antibiotic residues in animal waste and antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and said 160 countries have banned the use of ractopamine in livestock. Animal agriculture’s scientific defense of these products, she maintains, send a message that the industry favors profit motive over public safety.

We’re in the midst of a food revolution, Keiffer says. Influential celebrity chefs are embracing new paradigms in raising livestock and progressive food companies are shifting toward more “natural’ production systems. Keiffer acknowledged that specialty meats such as organic or free range cost more, often a lot more, and seemed to suggest there is huge, untapped demand for these products, even at exponentially higher prices, which caused some eyes to roll in the audience.

Many in the audience disagreed with some of the details in Keiffer’s presentation, but accepted her message that stakeholders in animal agriculture need to listen to consumers and embrace change.

Taking more of the middle road, David Westcott, director of digital strategy for APCO Worldwide and a social-media expert joined a panel on using social media. He led off saying legal arguments to defend practices do not play well with consumers. In response to the earlier statement that consumers “do not have a right to know how their food is produced,” he responded “tell that to a mom.”

As for dialog with consumers, he simplified the process by suggesting three steps:

  1. Know who your stakeholders are.
  2. Ask them what they want.
  3. Give it to them.