Time for meat scientists to ‘stand and fight’: Gary Smith — From Meatingplace

I had the opportunity to hear Gary Smith speak on this subject and it was a bit validating to hear his take on what a “21st Century Meat Scientist” will be.  Below is an article that was posted to Meatingplace.com this morning.

I pulled this from Meatingplace because I certainly think this is a message worth sharing … beyond those who regularly read Meatingplace updates.

One thing I’m not sure about, though I’ve hard it in other places as well — and that is the word “fight.”

There have been other references to the “fight” in recent industry campaigns, and I step back and wonder if we should be fighting rather than engaging.  Communicating science and explaining the why’s and how’s involves engagement — which, to me, is a step beyond in-your-face-these-are-the-facts approaches.  In my view, we do a great job sharing factoids and a poorer job justifying and/or explaining those factoids.

What do you think?  Many in ag are pumped up and want to tell their story.  How does storytelling differ from educating?  Or does it?

Time for meat scientists to ‘stand and fight’: Gary Smith

By Lisa M. Keefe on 6/28/2010

Meat scientists have the knowledge to be at the forefront of debunking the misperceptions of the industry; now they need to develop the communications skills to do so effectively, says Gary C. Smith, Monfort Endowed Chair in Meat Science at Colorado State University since 1990.

In his keynote address to a packed house at the annual Reciprocal Meat Conference in Lubbock, Texas, Smith held forth on the role of meat scientists in the 21st century. The keys to success, he says, are information, social media and the willingness to fight, fairly but forcibly.

After his presentation, which is available on the American Meat Science Association Web site, Smith sat for an interview with Meatingplace.

You say that meat scientists have a big role to play, particularly in changing consumers’ minds. Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest problem that we have as meat scientists is that, irrespective of how much we might know about the subject, when we speak to others we are always seen as biased. The difficulty comes in us establishing that as meat scientists we can be experts in human nutrition, we can be experts in food safety and not be biased about everything that we say.

I often use the fact that I have six children in their 40s and 13 grand children. I’m not just concerned about having somebody eat something because I happen to make a living in the meat industry; I also am concerned about the health and well-being of my family.

It’s just hard to get that across, because somehow or other, medical doctors are considered experts in what goes on in nutrition. Let me give you an example: My oldest granddaughter is in her last year of medical school. And the last time I talked with her was about a month ago, and they still had not had a human nutrition course in medical school. And all of a sudden just because you’re an M.D. you’re an expert?

In what we do we just need to establish ourselves as the experts. I believe that the (American Meat Science Association) needs a Web site at which, every time something comes up in the industry, we immediately post information from the five people in the association who would be considered the most knowledgeable [on that topic].

Yet at times it’s so difficult to determine, where do we get an audience? The thing that’s made it possible is social media. That’s why the young people in this industry have to go blog, [post on] Twitter, on YouTube, they’ve got to get the story out in an unbiased way based on the soundest science we can possibly produce.

So it’s really a communications role that you see for meat scientists now.

One of the most important things we can do as meat scientists, when [someone in the industry is], in fact, doing things we should not do, whether it’s producers, packers [or] scientists, we have to admit it. When someone is beating animals we have to admit that those things are occurring and do everything we can do to say, ‘This is a problem and we’re working on it.’

I was one of the scientists that AMI identified as one of the people to respond on (the movie) “Food Inc.” The very first e-mail I got was at 9 o’clock one night from a woman who said, ‘I just saw ‘Food Inc.’ and I can’t go to sleep because I saw these people mistreating animals. Can you tell me about that?’ And I said. ‘I’ve spent my entire life working with people who do this. And I will tell you that there are people who do exactly those things. But the vast majority of them do not.’ And I said the problem with the way that this is being approached by the activists is, if I wanted to demonstrate that men always beat up their wives, I could surreptitiously film someone beating up their wife, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does it.

But people think we do.

Between what you see as the role meat scientists could play and the extent to which they do play that role today, is there a huge gap? How far does the meat science community need to come to be that resource?

I think the last two generations of people coming into meat science think completely differently from those who attended the first meeting in Stillwater, Okla., 48 years ago. Then when I told someone I was in meat science … they’d say, ‘Oh, I bet you could tell me how to pick out a good steak.’

Now when I tell someone, they immediately start on sustainability and global warming. We’ve got to be prepared to answer completely different questions. And these young people are [ready]. They can immediately do it in a way that’s not intrusive, not smart-alecky and that really is trying to convey a message that says, ‘We realize there are things wrong with our product, things wrong with the way we produce it, process it, sell it, but we’re working on it. We’re doing better.’

One thing I’ve heard said is that the activists are working on emotions and when you come back with scientific response, that’s not as effective at getting consumers’ attention. You see it differently. Why do you feel that the science can break [through] the communications logjam?

I thought it was interesting that the chancellor of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo was going to have Mike Pollan come to talk to the students. [Editor’s note: Ultimately, Pollan’s appearance became a three-person panel, including Smith.]And the interesting thing was, toward the end Pollan said in response to a question, ‘You have to understand, I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist.’

And most of the people in the industry have walked away from that saying, ‘He admitted that he can’t argue with science,’ because he kept saying the only sustainable production of beef is grass-fed. When I used evidence to simply say, ‘I know people who are in the industry, and I know what it costs them to do it, if you’d like to pay $350 more for each animal we can do it grass-fed, but what about the people who can’t afford to buy that?’ And he has no argument.

He’s leading what people call the “luxury extremist” wing.

In the last five years I have spent an inordinate amount of time reading and preparing [talking point in response to activists’ challenges’]. How do I weave into the fabric a whole bunch of just being reasonable along with a little bit of science. Because for many of the things that [Pollan] claims, there is no science. So you can’t argue with these people using science because there is no science.

In a good many cases … There is no science that one thing is really better than another. And so one thing that as a scientist we’ve always said, if we cannot defend it using science then we must always express it as an opinion. [You say,] ‘There simply is no science to either support or refute what you say. But my observation has been thus-and-so.’

Is there some training or experience that you thing would help scientists become better communicators?

I try to encourage them to watch what the young people are doing. Us old guys have to do the same thing. Also — don’t be a turtle about these issues. We’ve allowed too many [activists] to say these things and have nodded and gone on. It’s to the point where we have to stand and fight. We have to at least let them know that we have an opinion that’s different from theirs.

Speaking of differing opinion, you mention in your talk that meat scientists need to engage vegetarians and flexitarians in a conversation. How do you imagine that conversation goes?

I give talks [often] to state dietetic associations. Usually between 10 and 30 percent of registered dieticians are vegans or vegetarians. The way I approach it, I say … ‘How we can have a rational argument without getting into a fistfight about it?’ We have to be understanding [of other people’s beliefs] and express our own, through science, if science supports what you believe.

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2 thoughts on “Time for meat scientists to ‘stand and fight’: Gary Smith — From Meatingplace

  1. Ditto that! “In my view, we do a great job sharing factoids and a poor job justifying and/or explaining those factoids.”

    Story telling can be educating depending on what your story is and what you are trying to educate about, IMO. I worry that we in ag are creating more problems by giving “expert” license to everyone.

    In respect to animal agriculture, I see it similar to the MD analogy on nutrition. Just cuz you raise ’em, doesn’t mean you can explain the process of turning them into meat. Just my two cents 🙂

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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