Beef Industry Needs Better PR Tactics

The US beef industry has its work cut out for it as various anti-meat groups and studies keep chipping away and taking PR ground.

The Beef Checkoff is meant to increase beef demand among consumers, and studies have shown the investment has been worthwhile.  But the industry needs a knockout blow similar to the one delivered in 2003 when the first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow disease, appeared in an imported Washington cow.

In that instance, the Beef Board, along with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, had a Web page ready and waiting for launch with all of the facts about BSE, and the press took to it like flies to honey.  The result was a media storm filled with facts, not speculation, that calmed the storm quickly for US consumers.

A study by Gidon Eshel, an environmental physics professor at Bard College in New York, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported by NBC News says beef production causes more environmental damage than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.  And a new documentary called “Cowspiracy” purportedly slams the beef industry and says it is the one single industry destroying the planet more than any other.

Vegetarian and vegan groups already deliver similar messages, and these specific studies or documentaries may be forgotten in time, but in their wake will be a new batch of consumers who take up the vegetarian mantle because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Eshel’s study used US government figures to calculate air and water emissions and how much water and land were used in the production of beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs.  He concluded that beef production produces five times more global warming gasses per calorie, puts out six times as much potentially water-polluting nitrogen, takes 11 times more water for irrigation and uses 28 times as much land as other animal proteins.




There are facts that back up the beef industry’s right to exist and prosper, but the problem is none of them make a decent sound bite, and consumers like sound bites and comparisons to things in their daily lives.  They often assume some master conspiracy theory is at work to rob them of their money, health or children and thus fall prey to factoids and never do a Google search to check them out.

For instance, the “Cowspiracy” Web site says it takes 660 gallons of water to make one hamburger, or the equivalent of two months worth of showers.  However, Facts About Beef’s Web site says it takes 441 gallons of water to produce a pound of boneless beef, a fraction of what it takes to produce other everyday items.  A cotton T-shirt takes 713 gallons.  A new car takes 39,090 gallons.  It also claims 36 million gallons a day simply leak out of the New York City water system.

When called by NBC News for a comment, Kim Stackhouse, sustainability director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said Eshel’s study was “a gross oversimplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain.”  He said the industry has improved its environmental sustainability and that the US produces beef with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any country.

That’s true, but Eshel didn’t compare US beef production with other countries, nor did he infer the industry hadn’t made progress.  Therefore, Stackhouse didn’t answer the question for consumers teetering on the brink of vegetarianism.