Have you earned your MBA? Your Masters of Beef Advocacy that is? Mother Jones Magazine has uncovered a bizarre and sadly backward reaction by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to growing consumer suspicion about the health and environmental effects of their trade. Specifically, the association is upset with Michael Pollan and other consumer advocates who have suggested cutting back on industrially produced meat would benefit the health of people, planet, and the economy at large.
The industry’s reaction has been to create a sort of PR training camp for college students interested in pursuing careers in cattle ranching, beef production, and related fields. The idea is to equip them with talking points, fact sheets and online resources and to prepare them to deal with media inquiries about the beef industry. Upon completing the course, students are meant to become “everyday advocates” in defending the industry against the apparent threat of consumer activists.
But here’s the problem: Michael Pollan doesn’t have anything against beef. Neither do I, for that matter. In fact, I love a good burger from time to time. The problem is the defensive posture the industry is taking. When an industry reacts defensively, thinking of people like Pollan as a threat, they only dig themselves deeper into a ditch. Pollan could and should be the best thing the beef industry could ask for – a public educator who inspires people to learn more about where their food is coming from. It’s unfortunate that transparency is enough to make beef producers feel threatened.
Recognizing the connection from cow to plate ought to be a great opportunity for beef producers to forge new relationships with customers, learn more about what people want, and (for the good producers) show off how they’re doing the right thing.
The catch, of course, is that this won’t work for the massive industrial producers: these huge institutions fuel the low quality fast food industry and do indeed create untold environmental havoc (e-coli anyone? pink slime?) Few nutritionists would advocate industrial beef as a major part of anyone’s diet and if you’ve ever driven past “Cowschwitz” on interstate 5, the environmental chaos a major feed lot produces is obvious.
Despite this, there are plenty of beef producers who have been doing the right thing for years – Niman Ranch and others come to mind. These folks have been quietly reducing their environmental footprints, growing healthier, happier cows, and contributing less to our global obesity and heart disease crisis (and they’re delicious).
The question I have then is: For whom does the “MBA” speak? The defensive industrial status quo? Or will it be a real effort to encourage and recognize progressive ranchers and beef producers who deserve to be known?