Guard your credibility

Cow-calf commentary:

KIMBALL – In a world where people increasingly distrust nearly everything, a recent Princeton University survey showed that the American public holds farmers in high esteem.
Despite a never-ending stream of anti-agriculture news and opinion, farmering was ranked as one of the top professions when it comes to competence and trust, along with doctors, nurses, and teachers.
This means that farmers have a great deal of credibility capital.
Perhaps one reason for this is the fact that despite a great deal of negative press and sensationalistic scare tactics, every American must eat several times a day. Most folks realize that none of the scary predictions ever come true. They seem to understand the food they buy and consume is utterly safe, healthy, nutritious and incredibly inexpensive. And they know that farmers produce that food.
I’d offer a word of caution though. Farmers and ranchers should carefully guard their credibility.
A few cases in point:
• The Whole Foods company, a food market chain which has built its customer base by offering exclusively “natural” and “organic” foods, was doing a booming business until they made a terrible mistake. In their advertising campaign they began to use a lot of junk science as evidence the foods they sell are healthier, safer, and more nutritious than the foods sold by their competitors -- the more traditional supermarkets and grocery stores. Then they began to attack non-organic, non-natural farmers for raising GMO crops, using chemicals and pesticides, and for intentionally producing unsafe and unhealthy food in order to make money.
Well, people aren’t entirely stupid. Most folks used personal experience and a bit of light fact checking to satisfy themselves that advertising claims made by Whole Foods are entirely bogus. Furthermore, people generally react badly when they feel like they are being lectured to by people who’ve taken on an air of unearned moral superiority. And people really, really, really hate being
lied to.
Whole Foods also wounded themselves severely when all three of their regional kitchens were shut down due to a long list of FDA violations. On inspection of the kitchens, FDA Inspectors found employees splashing dirty water on to ready-to-eat vegetables, condensation dripping into barrels of egg salad and onto food preparation surfaces while employees were chopping vegetables there and overspray of ammonium-based sanitizer landing on food being prepared. The facilities also lacked adequate hand washing facilities and  inspectors found an unmarked drum of chemicals in the vegetable
prep area.
Even worse, samples taken from food prep areas grew out a number of pathogens, including Listeria monocytogenes, a particularly nasty pathogen which kills about 260 Americans each year. Food poisoning caused by Listeria carries a 16 percent mortality rate, making it by far the most deadly form of food poisoning. By comparison, Salmonella, E. coli, and other pathogens associated with food poisoning carry a mortality rate of only 0.006 percent.
You can read the FDA inspection letter on the web at
People naturally wonder why a self-proclaimed paragon of safe and healthy food would behave in such a fashion. Unsurprisingly, Whole Foods market share and stock prices plummeted, and last month the company was purchased by Amazon.
• Another self-proclaimed paragon of wholesomeness, the Chipotle restaurant chain, mirrored many of the strategies of Whole Foods. In addition to jumping on the “natural” and “organic” bandwagon, they went all-in on “humanely raised” meats. Unfortunately for Chipotle, they were then caught selling meat which violated their own policies. Next, Chipotle restaurants went on to actually sicken hundreds of customers with E. coli, Salmonella, and Norovirus outbreaks.
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) recently pointed out that Americans are far more likely to be sickened by eating at Chipotle than to be injured in a shark attack. The beauty of the ACSH story is that it put the statistics in scale, context and perspective. There are about 9.7 food poisonings for every 10 million meals served by Chipotle. For all intents and purposes, it’s nearly-perfectly safe to eat there. However, Americans suffer only 0.6 shark attacks per 10 million beach visits. Again, a very small number, and American’s are nearly-perfectly safe from shark attack. Still, you are about 17 times as likely to be sickened at Chipotle than to be attacked by a shark at
the beach.
You can find the ACSH story on the web at
As I mentioned before, people aren’t entirely stupid, and they hate being lectured at and lied to. Chipotle stock prices have tumbled from about $800 per share to less than $400 per share.
Quite a few farmers and ranchers have climbed aboard the “healthy food” train over the last decade or so. Many market the food they produce as natural, organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic-free, and so forth. Even worse, many have also developed marketing/advertising strategies that directly or indirectly attack producers who employ traditionally modern agricultural techniques.
I’ve talked to quite a few of these folks, and all of them seem to be well aware the claims against modern agricultural practice are entirely baseless. Their justification is basically this: “It’s just marketing, man!”
Well. It might be worth rethinking that strategy. The only way to keep the credibility capital farmers and ranches presently own is to actually be credible. To be honest.
People aren’t entirely stupid.