If Canadian beef and dairy producers want to know what they’re up against when it comes to public perceptions, a good place to start is jillianharris.com.
Jillian Harris, who grew up in Peace River, Alta., became famous when she starred as the bachelorette on the popular TV show, The Bachelorette. She now stars on the W Network’s Love it or List it Vancouver, and like many celebrities, she is extremely active on social media. She has 162,000 Twitter followers and has her own website dedicated to food, fashion, life and beauty.
In January Harris announced in a blog at www.jillianharris.com/alberta-meatatarian-become-vegan-ish/ that she has stopped eating meat and severely cut back on dairy products. She made the choice because it’s “insanely better for your health and the environment.”
“I used to make fun of vegans,” Harris wrote in her blog. “I used to think that people who didn’t eat bacon were stupid…. I used to say if I could live on one thing and one thing only it would be bacon burgers.”
Harris, who lives in Kelowna, B.C., used to drink a half litre of milk per day, but she began to question her meat and milk habits after getting a dog.
“Looking at those innocent eyes every day reminded me that he’s not much different than the piggies and the cows I was eating every day,” she wrote. “I wanted to learn more so I watched three documentaries, Cowspiracy, Vegucated the True Cost and then … I saw the light.
“It turns out there aren’t many options to eat animal products in a ‘humane’ way … 90 percent of the animal products I’m eating come from a factory farm…. Now I get sick just thinking about all of the cows that sit there for their whole lives jacked up to a machine, not able to see their young. I always imagined a dairy cow to be the most romantic thing ever, now I realize it’s actually torture.”
Harris hasn’t entirely gone vegan; she does consume some dairy and eggs. In her blog Harris, said she’s not “asking anyone” to give up meat or milk, but she is actively promoting a vegetarian and ethical diet on Twitter. She recently re-tweeted:
Did you know the American cattle industry feeds as much as a million pounds of poultry excrement to cattle each year? ? #mindfulbook
— Erin Ireland (@erinireland) January 28, 2016
The Western Producer contacted the managing editor of Harris’ website for comment. So far she hasn’t responded.
Countering the power and influence of celebrities isn’t easy for the beef or dairy sector because young, urban Canadians are probably not following the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association on Twitter.
More importantly, surveys show the public doesn’t trust industry messages.
“National and global companies are not trusted,” said Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, McDonald’s Canada’s senior manager of sustainability, in Ste. Rose du Lac, Man. in January. “Consumers aren’t going to believe me if I tell them that their beef is sustainably produced…. They’re not going to believe Manitoba Beef Producers, they’re not going to believe the CCA.”
Despite the challenge, Canada’s beef industry needs to take action now to sway public perceptions. If they don’t, eating beef may soon become socially unacceptable.
“If I have a big SUV in my driveway in Toronto, my neighbours will wonder why I need that,” Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said. “If I’m going to be barbecuing steak 10 years from now, I may have (Toronto) neighbours wondering why steak?… ‘Don’t you know how bad that is for the environment?’ ”
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said that scenario is unlikely in the short term, but it is a possibility.
“If the issues that urban Canadians, especially, are becoming more concerned about aren’t addressed in a head on way, by all elements of the value chain … I think there is (a chance) longer term for urban Canadians to start feeling more apprehensive about serving beef.”
In 2014, McDonald’s launched a pilot project in Canada to develop sustainability indicators and verify that beef is being produced sustainably.
The fast food giant hopes to use the lessons from the Canadian project and move toward a sustainable beef program for its global operations. The goal is to have a third party measure and verify sustainable beef practices and then communicate those results to consumers.
In the meantime, Harris’ newfound disgust with meat and milk continues to influence her Twitter followers, such as:
— Alice Rose (@LovelyIslander_) February 2, 2016
Jillian Harris has 162,000 Twitter followers. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has 3,967.