For Consumers, Perception Is Reality

By Andy Hanacek, executive editor

Another month, and another incident putting the meat industry and government on notice, calling them out for the actions of one processor. I’m sure you all are just as exasperated about the string of recalls and incidents over the past year as I am.
The incident at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. was a regretful situation that never should have happened, and furthermore never should have been recorded. This is not to say that, when no one is watching, animal welfare practices should be thrown out the window. Absolutely not.
Unfortunately, we live in a media-driven, perception-is-reality society, and if all consumers ever hear and see is negative, hidden-camera investigations and recalls, that becomes the reality. It certainly is not fair when consumers and the media generalize meat processors based on one incident.
Yet, instead of reacting and defending itself in times of crisis, the meat industry needs to remind consumers of the things the industry does well and show them what those things are, starting now. In times ofconsumer crisis, it does not pay to crawl deep into a hole and hide.
If the consumer media won’tlisten or help, then it’s time to find alternative ways to get out and spread the word.
The solution, quite frankly, starts with all of us, working together to open up and share the good news that the meat industry isn’t exactly as the consumer media represents it. As of presstime, several associations were expected to meet to possibly discuss ways to restore consumer confidence in the wake of this incident. I applaud this idea, and I will do my part — whatever that may be — to support initiatives such as these. However, I challenge those associations to think proactively and incorporate an innovative stream of positive news and actions that flows to consumers well beyond this incident. Be consistent, and reactions to unforeseen incidents won’t be as difficult or defensive.
Honesty and clarity are the best policy for those who are doing the right things. If your animal welfare practices meet or exceed requirements, let’s tell people. If your food-safety record is spotless, let’s tell people. If your worker-safety or environmental-stewardship programs go above and beyond, let’s tell people.
These are the things consumers need to hear to change their perceptions. On the flip side, the industry should be frank with consumers about what needs tweaking. If we do that, consumers might just show their appreciation. If we retreat or are constantly on the defensive, consumers will be wary and confused. They want the truth, and they want it spelled out for them to make a quick decision.
It’s not easy, but it’s necessary from the point of perception.
And if you think perception means little, ask Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Brian McNamee what they think about it.