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Maximizing social media

CHERYL TEVIS 02/04/2013 @ 10:47am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

A steady diet of unappetizing stories and Internet posts about food production has sent farmers to the test kitchen to find a new recipe for reaching consumers.

The lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) food fight was fed by social media. Its emergence as one of the top food stories of 2012 shows how the digital age is transforming the food landscape for American farmers.

The $1.2 billion LFTB defamation lawsuit filed against ABC News in a South Dakota court by Beef Processors, Inc., isn't likely to diminish American consumers' appetite for knowing more about their food.

When food safety questions arise, 45% of consumers search for more information online, according to the 2012 Consumer Trust in the Food System study by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).

“The Internet increases the voice of extremists,” says Temple Grandin, the Boston-born Colorado State University animal science professor and consultant on the humane treatment of animals.

Grandin admits that she was unfamiliar with lean, finely textured beef when the food fight went viral last year. “I realize now we're throwing away a lot of beef without it,” she says. “The plant should have opened up to the media and provided ammonia's safety figures. The public doesn't like surprises.”

That's why Grandin turned to YouTube to conduct a video tour of a beef packing plant. “Agriculture has done a lousy job of communicating with the public,” she says. “Surveys show that public attitudes about food issues are somewhere between the extremes. We need to communicate with the majority in the middle.”

Recent research supports Grandin's observations. Simply promoting the efficiency of modern farms or the need to feed the world isn't enough. CFI research reveals that shared values are more important to building trust than technical competence.

“Consumers know farmers are capable, but do they know that farmers share their values?” asks Roxi Beck, a CFI representative and manager of BestFoodFacts.org.

In response, farmers are serving up a new main menu of social media and old-fashioned one-on-one communication to portray the realities of modern food production and to maintain consumer trust.

Food for thought

The 2012 CFI Consumer Trust survey shows that Facebook is the top Internet connection site for food bloggers.

That's why Bill Couser welcomed food bloggers to his Nevada, Iowa, farm during the three-day Iowa CornQuest, organized by the Iowa Corn Growers. “I'm excited to have you here, because it's a privilege to showcase U.S. agriculture,” he told participants. “I still put a round seed in the ground and have faith it'll produce. But farmers do a lot of techie stuff, too.”

Last fall, Couser hosted 10 bloggers from across the U.S. in his new office — built with boards from an old county farm barn. Its conference room features four flat screens used for presentations.

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