Th Beef Board says consumers increasingly see modern agriculture and cattle production as “factory farming” and are looking for strategies to counter this perception.
One of the tools activists use to denigrate modern agriculture is the term “factory farming,” which British writer Ruth Harrison first used in 1964 in her book Animal Machines to describe her perceptions of modern farming practices in Great Britain.
In recent years, the reference to “factory farming” has been used with increasing frequency in both conventional and online/social media to signify anything and everything that activists see as bad in livestock and poultry production, including animal suffering, excessive use of antibiotics and hormones and environmental and food safety problems, according to an analysis by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.
In response, the board conducted a beef checkoff-funded study to determine the extent to which the term factory farming has infiltrated the public psyche. Noting that “it isn’t what people don’t know that causes problems; it’s what they do know that isn’t true,” the board explained that the objective of the study was to determine how linked the factory farming term is to beef production and how to counter negative associations.
The study found that the number of people who are familiar with the term factory farming increased from 49% in 2008 to 56% in 2009 to 64% this year, indicating how much the term is catching on with the public.
Consumers associate factory farming most with poultry production but second-most with cattle production — beef cattle production more than dairy production the study found.
Consumers overwhelmingly associate factory farming with big size and large-scale production , describing it as industrialized, owned by corporations and producing large numbers of animals, the study found. A small number of consumers believe these kinds of farms are driving small, family farms out of business.
Addressing the issue of “it’s what they do know that isn’t true,” the study asked consumers to consider two descriptions of factory farming: (1) animals are confined indoors all of their lives or (2) as in cattle production, animals are grazed on pastures most of their lives and spend only a few months confined in feedlots.
Given this information, just 39% of consumers said they consider cattle production to be factory farming — fewer than had earlier associated cattle production with the term.
Also concerning, the board said in its analysis, is that of the people who said they are familiar with the factory farming terminology, more than half — 58% — believe the beef they buy at supermarkets comes from factory farms, with 56% reporting that they are concerned (41% of those saying they are greatly concerned) about its safety.
The board said an industry priority in fiscal 2011 will be reconnecting consumers to modern cattle production, and additional studies will be carried out to identify strategies to do this. The board said it will especially target the emerging new market of “millennials,” who are 13-30 years old.