The meatpacking and processing industry needs to do less defending and deflecting and more embracing and changing.
That was the message Julie Anna Potts, CEO of the North American Meat Institute, delivered to a group of women gathered for the Women in Agribusiness Summit in September. Potts is no stranger to the agriculture scene. Many recognize her from years working with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Three years ago, she joined the North American Meat Institute, which represents about 95% of the red meat industry and about 70% of the turkey production in the U.S.
Potts acknowledged the meat industry is about “slaughtering animals and there's some baggage around that,” but that it needs to share with consumers what it does and, more importantly, how it plans to do better.
The result is a new effort by the animal agriculture industry dubbed the Protein PACT — the People, Animals and Climate of Tomorrow — designed to strengthen animal protein’s contributions to healthy people, healthy animals, healthy communities and a healthy environment.
The goal is to have consumers put their trust back in animal protein. “And believe me, that is not something that you can go out and say to the average consumer, ‘Hey, trust us,’” Potts explained. Instead, the Protein PACT will align the products and the way they're produced with consumer values. Ultimately, it comes down to messaging.
Consumer confidence wanes
The group identified six pillars that can move the trust needle with consumers — worker safety, environmental impact, human rights, food safety, animal welfare and human health.
In 2021, consumers gave the protein industry a 3.4 to 3.7 out of 5 on the trust scale depending on the issue. That's about neutral, Potts said, “It's not terrible, but not great.” The goal of the Protein PACT effort is to increase trust to a solid 4 by 2030, an increase that brings the meat industry an upside of $17 billion per year.
“The risk on the downside is doing nothing,” Potts said. “The trust in what we do continues to erode. And we will see a drop in demand of roughly $13 billion a year over the next 10 years.”
Establishing greater consumer confidence will be accomplished through positive messages about benefits of the products and transparency in production practices.
“We realize that if we do well in improving the perception of the humane treatment of animals in the supply chain that our perception on environmental and food safety goes up as well,” Potts explained. “If we do well on food safety, the perception on nutritional value and health goes up as well.”
This insight led to a communications framework for the group.
Crafting the conversation
The Protein PACT messaging focuses on the consumer’s plate and the choice of what fills it. Potts offered the following as examples. However, they are still a work in progress:
These types of advertisements are not directed at every consumer, Potts said. That would be too heavy to lift with too few resources. The group will identify key influencers that already encourage consumers to make choices about their food.
“We want some of those choices to be animal agriculture,” she said. “And what we want to supply in backup stories is the opportunity to know what the meat industry is doing — from feed all the way through to retail.”
Potts added this type of approach allows consumers — those that are call themselves omnivores, flexitarians, meat-eaters, or simply the large group in the middle — that just have questions to hear from the animal protein group.
The campaign is part of the Protein PACT Summit discussion in October. These types of messages will appear in social media and traditional media at the start of 2022. Potts shared one advertisement that summed up how the meat industry feels about its products:
“The truth is that food — particularly meat, poultry, eggs and dairy — is a sacred part of our identities; it's a choice to eat what sustains our appetites, our traditions, our families and, ultimately, our lives. We can simultaneously choose what's best for the people, animals and climate of tomorrow, because the Protein PACT is making sure we have a vast availability of choices that we can feel good about well into the future.”
Growing sustainable movement
The timing of the Protein PACT comes at the height of discussions of sustainability within industries such as beef, poultry and pork.
“They all having done these amazing things in the sustainability arena with their own area of metrics and targets and communications about the great work on the sustainability side and animal agriculture,” Potts explained.
“What we needed to do was put something together that would scoop all of these things out for animal agriculture, put it under a messaging umbrella, and begin to talk more transparently about what it is we are doing in these areas, and the improvements that had been made to this point, and what we're have identified as the commitments the industry is willing to make in the future.”
The Protein PACT calls for the meat industry to be able to co-exist with those that think that animal agriculture shouldn't exist. “Now if that's not a bold vision, I don't know what it is,” Potts said.
She admitted it is going to be tough to have those kinds of dialogues about what the meat industry can do better. “But we believe that admitting that there are improvements that can be made is an element of building trust and authenticity with consumers,” Potts said. “And that's what we're planning to do.”