Consumers remain wary of livestock technology

Technological tools boost supply | Cautious attitudes blamed on well-fed populations in developed countries

DENVER, Colo. — Producers have increased beef supplies using growth promoting hormones, medications, better feed and improved genetics, but not all consumers are comfortable with the technology.

“We are not afraid of having enough to eat, so the majority of the population thinks today we are able to produce without any modern technology, for example GMOs or growth hormones,” says Guillaume Roue, a French pork producer and vice-president of the International Meat Secretariat.

He said France exports 30 percent of its pork production, but the public doesn’t know that or appreciate the need for open markets or access to technological improvements.

“If we do not have the modern technology and our competitors do, I am afraid we will be out of business very quickly,” he told the International Livestock Congress in Denver Jan. 15.

The congress debated the need for more technology to feed a population of nine billion people in 2050. It was agreed technology and science are key components to boosting the food supply, but communicating that message to modern consumers is increasingly difficult.

Hsin Huang, general secretary of the meat secretariat, said the meat sector faces complex challenges.

“Science, technology and better management practices have provided us with the luxury of cheap, abundant food. There is so much of it we waste a lot of it,” he said. “We don’t put a high enough value on it.”

Consumer studies show most Americans still eat beef, but a new generation called the millennials, who were born after 1980, are unsure about cooking it and are raising questions about growth hormones and antibiotic use.

“I worry about the level of trust they have for our product,” said John Lundeen, director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Millennials were raised on ground beef but shy away from steaks and roasts. They are not sure how to cook them and worry about cost as they struggle to make ends meet in a poor economy.

Consumers continue to seek a balance in their diet and many still have protein as the centre of their meals, but in recent years they have chosen chicken or fish rather than beef.

It’s challenging to tell these people about cooking and to explain livestock production practices to them.

Lundeen said the traditional media tends to present a positive story about beef and food production, but social media tends to have a more negative tone in its reporting about animal rights, food safety, livestock’s impact on the environment and the nutritional value of beef.

His research has found that those who regularly eat beef are generally not interested in seeing production practices.

“We don’t need to get into this in-depth information with the beef lover,” he said.

Lundeen said consumers who are dubious about eating beef are reassured when they learn more about how it is produced, but most information should be provided on an as-needed basis.

More than half of those surveyed say they can accept the use of medications if the animal is sick and a veterinarian has prescribed them.

Others reject the use of hormones.

“We have got to figure out how to do a better job talking about hormones in the context of animal health and that they do not harm public health,” he said.

He believes the best way to deal with problems that arise with beef is to emphasize the industry’s attempts at continuous improvement, whether it is for animal welfare, health or food safety.

Huang said the industry has to communicate what it does and how it fits in with what the modern consumer wants.

“Unfortunately, people are influenced more and more by the noise that is out there, particularly social media,” he said.

It is harder to find a balanced picture about food, he added.

“There is a real perception out there within government and key opinion leaders that producing beef is harmful for the environment and affects our climate and has a negative impact on our health,” Huang said.

Telling people to trust science is not always the best approach because of disagreement over its interpretation.

“Europeans tend to take a cautious approach, saying unforeseen problems could arise in the future because science overlooked something,” he said.

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