I’m a news junkie. Perhaps that comes in part from spending the better part of the past decade as a journalist and broadcaster, but mostly it’s because I am genuinely interested with and fascinated by what’s happening in the world around me, generally as it relates to politics and policy and specifically as it relates to agriculture, farm and food.
While we didn’t have social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when I first joined the ranks of the intrepid Fourth Estate, I’ve come to use these sites as a great barometer for “what’s happening” both in the industry and in society at large. If something gets a lot of “traction” on one or both of these sites, chances are it’s worth noting.
Notice I say it’s worth noting, not that it’s necessary true, accurate, important or even useful. Sometimes “something worth noting” online is none of the above and is often merely entertaining, and occasionally only aggravating or infuriating.
The point is that social media tools by their very definition provide a conduit for an engaged observer like myself to know what people are talking about and very often what they are thinking and saying about events as they unfold. Everyone has a microphone in the modern era of the Internet; in other words, as opposed to the days of old when news and information was gathered, filtered, packaged and disseminated by folks working for major broadcast outlets or news operations.
I make no value judgment, by the way, as to which system is “right” or “wrong.” The nature of journalism is such that I have few qualms about the average person reporting the news and/or commenting on the day’s events as they see them. After all, I had no formalized education in my chosen profession until I went back to college after nearly 10 years in the field.
Sharing all of that by way of background, I caught a story this week on Facebook that is worth noting, and further worthy of comment. McDonald’s, via its YouTube channel, released a series of videos focusing on its food suppliers. In addition to a Washington potato grower and a California lettuce producer, the series features Illinois cattleman Steve Foglesong.
Foglesong, a past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is featured in the two-minute vignette discussing his love of the land, the multi-generational nature of the Foglesong farm operation, and the importance of producing quality beef. It’s a focus, he says, of both his family and their customer – McDonald’s, in this case.
I met Foglesong some years ago during his tenure as an NCBA officer. I’ve interviewed him more than once, and based on my impression of the McDonald’s video, think he’s a pretty darned good spokesman for the many men and women who tend cattle for a living.
Most of the farm media coverage of, and social media reaction to, this video has centered on the concept of the Golden Arches’ positioning of food animal production in a positive light, and the overall upbeat presentation of a family on a working farm doing the daily chores. This coverage, I think, misses the point.
Throughout the course of 2011, many of us spent a good bit of time and digital ink decrying another national foodservice chain’s treatment of agriculture. Perhaps Chipotle’s continual affronts to modern, mainstream farm and food production has made the McDonald’s video so notable. Having written several posts and columns on Chipotle’s efforts over the years myself, I can understand why most people in agriculture are so happy with McDonald’s right now. I am, too.
However, McDonald’s is not doing some noble service to agriculture by featuring these videos. Neither, by the way, is Chipotle simply guided by evil intentions in its continuous barrage of cringe-inducing protestations about “food with integrity” and denouncing modern, mainstream food production.
Both fast food giants are after one thing and one thing alone: profit. Profit, which is almost never a dirty word in my house, is the defining reason a for-profit business entity exists in the first place. Chipotle, I have often argued, sees a profit motive in positioning its food as organic, “all natural,” or “hormone free.” They may well believe their own hype that food labeled as such is somehow more wholesome, if not more nutritious, than food produced under a conventional schema but they are ultimately operating in the manner they deem to be the most profitable.
McDonald’s, meanwhile, may well believe the lofty sentiments fomented in the food supplier YouTube series about how, where and by whom their food supply is produced, but they would not spend the marketing and advertising resources involved in this campaign if they did not believe it would ultimately advance their profitability as a company. They may be the largest restaurant chain in the known universe but they didn’t get that way without maintaining a disciplined focus on the bottom line.
Regardless of their intentions in producing the video, like so many in cattle country, I’m lovin’ it.