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MADISON – Mt. Horeb dairy farmer Tim Keller believes in the power of communication. Whether its educating a school group on the importance of using antibiotics responsibly to treat a sick cow or calling out a local restaurant chain for fear-based marekting.

"It's a good teaching experience," Keller said. "And if you don't speak up on these false advertising claims, it's going to snowball even more than it already has."

Hannah Thompson-Weeman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) told attendees at the Dairy Strong conference in Madison, that the job of farmers is two-fold: understanding the consumer they produce for and getting their message out to consumers before animal activist groups do.

"If you wait until consumers have already seen the negative misinformation provided to them by activist groups, we're not going to have the opportunity to influence them," Thompson-Weeman said. "The time to be proactive is now before there's an issue."

Thompson-Weeman says the AAA is a nonprofit organization that helps bridge the communication gap between farm and fork.

"We connect key food industry stakeholders to arm them with responses to emerging issues. We also engage food chain influencers and promote consumer choice by helping them better understand modern animal agriculture," she said.

The group also works to protect animal producers by exposing those who threaten our nation’s food security with damaging misinformation. 

"We have observed a trend over the past several years in that consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from. They want to know more about it and connect with farmers," Thompson-Weeman said. "The challenge is that the loudest voices are all too eager to try and answer those questions and fill in the blank with their distorted and inaccurate view of our industry. They're a well-funded, aggressive and strategic organization. That's what we're up against."

Surveys

To help understand consumers, AAA launched a study that focused on the importance of food labels, whether consumers were willing to pay more for specialty items such as cage-free eggs and their perception of animals raised with "No Antibiotics Ever" (NAE).

When questioned, 63% of consumers responded that labels were very important when making food purchasing decisions. Top three items of information sought on dairy products were: nutritional value, ingredient sourcing and allergen information.

Half of the consumers responded that they weren't influenced by specialty terms on labels such as cage-free, organic, non-GMO and natural.

"But there is a segment of the population that does care about those terms and are willing to pay for it," Thompson-Weeman said. 

While farmers are willing to go the extra mile and produce those products, it does come with a cost. Thompson-Weeman says cage-free eggs are the most expensive to produce when figuring in new housing systems, higher mortality rates and disease challenges. Cage-free eggs on average cost $1 more per dozen to produce than conventional eggs.

Pressure tactics

Back in 2015, Thompson-Weeman says a well-funded group of aggressive animal rights activists began targeting restaurants, retail, food service and hospitality brands in an effort to move them towards using only cage-free eggs. 

"They basically told them that their customers wanted this and if they didn't comply they would be targeted on social media and in ads," she said. "They ended up influencing 300 brands who agreed to only source cage-free eggs by a certain deadline. In addition, 75% of the egg producing industry agreed to convert to cage-free status by that deadline also."

While brands and egg producers are moving in that direction, not all consumers are on board with bearing the cost of production incurred by the owners of those laying hens.

"Consumers care that the laying hens be treated well, but when asked how much extra they're willing to pay, they settle on 30 cents more per dozen. That's a problem," Thompson-Weeman said. "If cage-free eggs are the only eggs available and they're too expensive, 20% of the people polled say they will just stop buying eggs.

"Companies should not commit to pledges that will raise food costs unless they actually know that their consumers want them and are willing to pay for them," she added.

Devastating

Another product gaining market demand across all commodity species is animals raised without ingesting any kind of antibiotics. Those raising antibiotic free animals cite decreased antibiotics resistance and the welfare of the animals.

"That's not why. They're doing it for the marketing. It's a buzz word on retail brands that they think will sell well to consumers," Thompson-Weeman said. "The folks out there on the ground raising and treating these animals believe what they're being asked to do for restaurants and retail brands is based on a misunderstanding of how this impacts animals health and welfare."

Thompson-Weeman recalls giving a tour at a broiler operation that had recently converted to "No Antibiotics Ever" facility. Those taking part on the tour included representatives from a restaurant and several retail brands.  While the group applauded the operations' efforts to raise birds without drugs, the producer had a different perspective.

"She said the change was devastating. Her mortality rates had gone through the roof, she was picking up more and more dead birds and said she wouldn't get much of a premium back due to her losses," Thompson-Weeman said. "Companies and the public need to hear those stories from the farmers themselves. Your voices are worth ten of mine. We all have to stand together, because as soon as one company goes in that direction of this fear-marketing, more of them feel as though they have to also."

Thompson-Weeman says this is already happening in the dairy industry.

"Activists are already calling for specialty production practices in your industry: cow calf separation, dehorning pain management, individual housing for calves," she said. "We need to be thinking about how we respond. How do we use this research from surveys to pump the brakes on making policy changes that consumers don't want."

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