ARLINGTON, Va. — Understanding consumers can help dairymen provide information about modern dairy production in a way that people can use to make informed decisions when deciding what to feed their families.
“There’s a lot of myths and misinformation about modern animal agriculture — that’s why the alliance is here,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
“We are a non-profit organization and our mission is to safeguard the future of animal agriculture and its value to society by bridging the communication gap between farm and food communities,” said Thompson-Weeman during a webinar hosted by the National Young Cooperators Program for the National Milk Producers Federation.
A lot of the times, the loudest voices include the activist organizations, Thompson-Weeman said.
“These groups don’t believe there’s anyway to responsibly raise animals for food,” she said. “Part of their strategy involves undermining consumer trust in animal agriculture by spreading myths and misinformation.”
Thompson-Weeman encourages dairymen to think about influencers such as those folks involved with restaurants and foodservice, as well as dietitians and thought leaders.
“They are making a lot of decisions for sourcing that impact consumer perceptions,” she said.
“There are from 4% to 6% vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. and that number has been stable for decades,” she said. “Diet is a very personal choice and we support people making this decision that aligns with their values and budgets, but we want to make sure they have accurate information when doing so.”
The vast majority of consumers are between the two extremes.
“They don’t have a personal or professional connection to animal agriculture and they don’t agree with the animal rights mindset,” Thompson-Weeman said. “They are being targeted with hot topics.”
Some of the current top issues the alliance is monitoring include animal welfare topics such as dairy calves being separated from their mothers.
“Also housing in general that includes any kind of confinement system that relates to stocking density,” Thompson-Weeman said. “That also includes anything that seems unnatural or anything that prevents an animal from exhibiting natural behavior.”
Antibiotic use is a primary interest by consumers.
“We’re seeing increase social media conversation,” Thompson-Weeman said. “They are looking at if the use of antibiotics impacts the final product and why antibiotics are used.”
Over the past few years the beef and dairy industries have been a major focus of the environment and sustainability discussion, Thompson-Weeman said.
“There is a lot of public policy maker interest in climate change and protecting the environment,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the extremists’ organizations to put forth a narrative that says if you care about sustainability and your impact on the planet you need to go vegan.”
There is also discussion about moving to meat and milk alternatives.
“We see efforts by the activist groups to undermine the perceived nutritional value of animal protein including dairy,” Thompson-Weeman said. “The sustainability and nutrition narrative involves calls to replace animal protein with plant-based or lab-grown products.”
The alliance has seen a lot of activist groups latch onto the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extremists are never going to let a crisis go to waste,” Thompson-Weeman said. “There is an attempt to draw a connection between the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and animal agriculture. Their claim is future pandemics are brewing on farms so we should all go vegan to get smaller farms and ultimately no farms.”
The lines between animal welfare and sustainability get blurred by consumers, Thompson-Weeman said.
“Consumers think of sustainability in a broader way — doing the right thing for the planet, for the animals and for the employees while producing nutritious, healthy food,” she said.
“This came through in a study last year published in the Journal of Dairy Science,” she said. “They found consumer perception of sustainability is impacted by a lot of different factors including packaging, labeling, animal welfare, organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, local labeling and clean label claims.”
It is critical for dairymen to understand how consumers think about sustainability.
“All of the best communication isn’t going to be effective if we’re using different terminology and focusing on different things than the consumer,” Thompson-Weeman said.
“For example, a product marketed as sustainable might be seen by consumers as more healthy even though those things are really not related, but consumers might get those terms confused,” she said.
Therefore, Thompson-Weeman said, dairymen need to make sure they are being clear when communicating about sustainability to be effective in the messaging.
A study in 2018 that looked at how people perceive dairy showed that 13% of the people said they considered themselves dairy avoiders.
“When they were asked why they avoided dairy, none of the top answers involved animal welfare or sustainability concerns,” Thompson-Weeman said.
“The top results were lactose intolerant, sensitivity to dairy or allergy, avoiding growth hormones, cut back on milk as they age, concerned about saturated fat consumption and a small percentage disliked the taste,” she said.
“Now is the time to set the record straight and make sure people have accurate information,” she said.
For more information about the Animal Agriculture Alliance, go to www.animalagalliance.org.