When I first started covering the industry, the prevailing logic was that the average consumer doesn’t want to know where his or her food comes from. All they cared about was that the food was nutritious and affordable, and that it tasted good.
That may still be the popular sentiment among consumers today, but a growing share of the population is becoming more curious about what they eat. How are these animals raised? How is this burger patty really made? What’s really going on inside those large meat and poultry plants anyway?
The problem in the past had been that the industry was unable or unwilling to speak out about its operations — a decision that has haunted processors again and again. If we won’t talk about our own industry, there are plenty of people who will, and their motives are suspect at best.
They are well-versed in terms such as “factory farming,” “pink slime” and “animal abuse,” and they won’t hesitate to use them. They know how to edit down an hours-long undercover video into a five-minute video clip to depict all manner of animal abuse, real or imagined. If they are the only ones to speak about the meat and poultry industry, consumers will believe them. And today, armed with a Twitter account or a blog, they can reach a large audience.
The solution, of course, is to increase the outreach to the public and educate them about the facts. Last week’s Chicken Media Summit 2013 served as an excellent starting point for a stronger relationship between the meat- and poultry-processing industry and the media. CMS 2013 brought editors, reporters, columnists and bloggers together with chicken industry executives and experts for an in-depth look at modern chicken production and processing operations.
Along with panel discussions featuring top leaders of the chicken industry (one such discussion featured Sanderson Farms’ Lampkin Butts, Pilgrim’s Pride’s Bill Lovette and Perdue Farms’ Jim Perdue) and several networking/learning opportunities, the attendees were given a thorough tour of Sanderson Farms’ Kinston, N.C.-area facilities, including a hatchery, chicken farm, processing plant and wastewater treatment area.
Sanderson Farms did not try to whitewash any part of its operation, or sidestep any questions media members posed. It showed every step of the actual day-to-day operations (excluding the breeding operations, for biosecurity reasons), from the handling and sorting of chicks and discarded egg shells at the hatchery, to the disassembly of the chicken carcasses at the Kinston plant.
Yes, attendees toured the slaughter area as well — a place many processors wouldn’t dream of sending a cluster of journalists and bloggers. All was there, on display — blood, feathers, knives. However, attendees were able to get past the shock of the experience, and see and understand all the steps that were taking place.
They saw that, once birds were shackled, they were perfectly calm and didn’t make a peep. They saw that once they passed through the stunner, they were insensitive to pain. They saw no blood spatter, heard no screams of pain when the birds’ necks were cut — it was quick, clean, painless and humane.
The tour guides informed attendees that birds flapping their wings after being stunned were merely making an unconscious spasm, and that no animal suffered during the process.
To see what the media members had to say about their experiences, go to Twitter and search out all the tweets using the #CMS2013 hashtag.
Interesting to note: during the summit, some “activists” who were not at the event, latched on to the CMS2013 hashtag and attempted to stir things up. You can figure out, pretty easily, which posts were made by attendees live-tweeting the tour and which were made by activists who weren’t there but criticized every aspect of it regardless.
Activists can talk about how chickens are suffering in “factory farms,” but when people walk into a chicken house and see 25,000 young birds eating, sleeping and playing in a clean, comfortable environment that didn’t smell at all like chicken waste, those arguments lose credibility.
Kudos to Lampkin Butts and the rest of his Sanderson Farms team. The decision to open the company’s newest facility to not only the media but also to the other processors on the tour must have been a nerve-wracking one, but they were more than up to the challenge. The processing plant at Kinston is a world-class facility, and the company got this important communication exchange off to a strong start. Here’s hoping that another processor will take up the cause next year and make the Chicken Media Summit an anticipated annual event.
I don’t expect that most attendees will dash to their keyboards and write an impassioned defense of the poultry industry, informing their readers that they can eat their chicken breasts and thighs with a clean conscience. This Media Summit wasn’t designed to convert anyone so much as to provide information and let attendees make their own unbiased decisions about the chicken business.
Yet, I believe attendees came away with an appreciation for what Sanderson Farms (and by extension, the poultry industry as a whole) is trying to do: provide a healthy and affordable source of protein to the American population while at the same time showing a concern for its employees, animals and consumers.