Tackling activism and telling red meat’s story

07 June 2019

With anti-meat extremism attracting more attention in the media, the Australian red meat and livestock industry has been working to inform consumers about the health, welfare and environmental credentials of red meat and share the story of its production.

However, an hour-long piece on ABC’s Landline program on Sunday – reporting on growing animal welfare activism – highlighted the fact producers want industry leaders to do more in this space and give them the information and resources to be better advocates.

Red meat under the spotlight

The high-profile demonstrations of recent months, which included trespassing on private property, continue to attract public attention, and are increasingly putting the practices of the red meat industry under the spotlight.

While this is occurring against a backdrop in which most of the population in Australia continues to buy red meat as part of the weekly diet, the seriousness of the situation shouldn’t be underestimated, MLA’s Managing Director Jason Strong said. In fact, Jason said activism and community sentiment are the most topical issues MLA is dealing with at present.

“The red meat industry recognised the right of every citizen to protest, but it had to happen in a manner that did not put in harm’s way the safety of people or animals,” Jason said.

“Trespass to protest is illegal, and interrupts and causes financial damage to legitimate businesses, including small family-owned businesses.

“The industry and business owners in it, including producers, are prepared to meet and discuss issues raised by activist protestors in a safe and respectful manner, and we invite and welcome such discussions.

“But no-one in the food supply chain should be placed in a situation where they have to defend themselves from physical attack, and the industry does not endorse – in any manner – aggressive business owner behaviour towards protestors,” Jason said.

This illegal behaviour also poses serious food safety and biosecurity risks.

“Our industry representatives are advocating for a better position in relation to trespass laws and their application being in far more harmony across Australia,” Jason said.

“And in which advocates from any organisation could sit down with us and talk about their issues and concerns so we can have constructive and respectful engagement.”

The National Farmers’ Federation has issued guidelines to protect the safety of farmers and other supply chain partners, trespassers, animals, and equipment, in case of trespass to protest.

“However, it’s in no way ideal that a producer has to be prepared to manage an illegal trespass that places the safety of their animals, their employees, and often their families, at risk,” Jason said.

He said many producers were feeling enormous frustration and concern after repeated public attacks by vegans on their integrity and on their industry.

Jason reiterated the percentage of households that eat beef and lamb remains very high (beef was on the menu in >90% of Australian households last year, and lamb in >76% of households), and MLA market research continues to show consumers have a very positive view of the industry. Community respect and appreciation for red meat producers is exceptionally high, MLA research also shows.

What MLA is doing

Under its statutory funding agreement, MLA isn’t permitted to engage with the government or the public on an advocacy basis.

However, MLA can – and is – communicating the good job producers do and the high standards of animal welfare in the industry.

The Australian Good Meat website engages directly with consumers and society about how beef and lamb is produced, acknowledging and answering all questions posed. At the same time, hundreds of animal welfare research projects are being coordinated and delivered by MLA. These include important work in areas such as pain mitigation, understanding animal stress/behaviours and reducing mortality rates.

MLA research shows around 10% of consumers report to be limiting red meat for animal welfare reasons and this group is typically 25–49 years old, well-educated, affluent and more likely to reside in inner city locations. MLA’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Lisa Sharp said this group is interested in food and how it’s produced, and is active on social media. They choose brands based on how those brands align with their personal values. 

“This group has concerns and questions about red meat production, but they don’t want to be ‘talked at’ or ‘educated’,” Lisa said.

“They tend to be very sceptical of large corporates, industry bodies and in some cases, the claims and actions of activists.”

MLA targets this group through food events, online content and social media, with producers acting as advocates. School programs are also utilised and MLA’s Rare Medium program aims to share the red meat story with chef influencers and lifestyle influencers.

MLA also deals with a raft of organisations, such as the RSPCA, the Dietitians Association of Australia and Cancer Council, to ensure the red meat story is being told in the most compelling and transparent way to build trust with consumers. It also continues to support industry representative bodies such as Cattle Council of Australia, Sheep Producers Australia and the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), which are tasked with advocating, to ensure they’re as well-informed as possible. 

A new approach

Jason said MLA is helping to build a cohesive, all-of-industry approach to tackle these issues head-on.

“For example, an industry corporate affairs unit has been established to coordinate responses and strategies, with MLA a key driver.

“The NFF has started to develop a program around a broader community engagement program, promoting Australian producers, and MLA will develop programs that are red meat-specific to go in behind that,” he said.

Jason also said MLA will continue to focus on communicating what work is being done in this space back to producers.

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