AUSTRALIA'S red meat producers may feel like their industry has been under fire this year, with heightened animal activist activity and the rise of the 'fake meat' phenomena.
But, Meat & Livestock Australia chief marketing and communications offi cer Lisa Sharp says the good news is that they are still highly trusted by the general public.
According to MLA's latest consumer insights, red meat remains part of weekly meals for about 70 per cent of the nation's households - a figure that has remained largely unchanged for the ast five years.
Despite this, Ms Sharp says livestock producers should be mindful of a growing number of consumers - albeit from a small base - who are concerned about animal welfare and the industry's footprint on the environment.
"The single biggest reason consumers are limiting consumption of beef - such as eating smaller portions or eating less frequently- is by far affordability, but what has changed in the past nine years is around 10pc are now claiming they are limiting for animal welfare reasons. This was around 2pc in 2010," she said.
"Their biggest animal welfare issue is transport, live export and road transport, especially close to metropolitan areas where they see animals being trucked.
A social licence is not bought, it is created by our standard operating practices and community and consumer acceptance of these.- Lisa Sharp, Meat & Livestock Australia
"The challenge for us is trying to close the knowledge gap - for example, the stocking densities are based on good animal welfare outcomes, but that is not what consumers see or feel so that is where our community engagement programs like Good Meat comes in."
Good Meat is an online platform, which was launched in August last year by MLA. It aims to provide consumers with an open and trusted source of information about beef, sheep and goat production in Australia.
Ms Sharp says maintaining a "social licence" with consumers, customers and the wider public is a challenge not only for red meat but all industries.
To ensure this occurs, the red meat industry must be proactive its commitment to good production practices and stamp out any unacceptable behaviour.
"A social licence is not bought, it is created by our standard operating practices and community and consumer acceptance of these. We need to demonstrate our commitment to these practices and often, how we are also improving over time," she said.
"The other part of social licence is how the industry deals with practice issues when they arise. We need to be aware that community members will judge us on how quickly we respond and deal with any issue."
For the past nine years, MLA has been investing in tracking consumer and community sentiment about industry practices, which Ms Sharp says is critically important.
Recent results show 63pc of community members believe the practices of the beef industry are very good or good, with a further 22pc are saying our practices are fair, but in the past nine years, the percentage of the population saying the industry was doing a "very bad or bad job" had lifted from 5pc to 8pc.
The statistics are similar for the sheep and lamb industry. Ms Sharp said it was interesting to also note that despite many images of livestock under drought and flood conditions in the media in 2019, the overwhelming media sentiment, which MLA also tracks, was neutral or positive towards the red meat industry, both in rural and metropolitan Australia.
This was even the case after April animal activist protests marking one year since the release of the movie Dominion.
"In metropolitan Australia, 83pc of the coverage of the protests was neutral or favourable to our industry, with many reports showing that consumers value their right to choose what they eat and not be dictated to," she said.
Ms Sharp says for the red meat industry to maintain its social licence, "actions will speak louder than words".
"Ninety-nine per cent do the right thing but it is the one percenters that threaten our industry," she said.
Developing scorecards and publicly available reports that demonstrate our good practice and quantify industry progress will also be important.
A great example of this was the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, in which information could be shared with major local and international customers, banks and investors and non-government organisations such as the Wilderness Society and RSPCA.
Ms Sharp said there was definitely a role for producers to advocate for their industry, engaging with consumers and the wider public, especially one-on-one.
To date, she said MLA had run advocate workshops with about 150 producers including training on communications and social media.
"Producers are highly respected and trusted and each has an individual story about how they care for the land, their animals, their families and their local community which is so powerful- we are always keen to hear from other producers looking to be involved," she said.
KANGAROO Island sheep producer Jamie Heinrich encourages farmers to talk their industry up as often as they can to the general public.
'We all talk to people in the general public every day, we should tell them how we love what we do and how much we care about our animals," he said.
"Droughts can be hard and we all have our challenges but it doesn't help our image if we are whinging about things all the time."
Mr Heinrich, who operates Ella Matta White Suffolk and Poll Merino studs at Parndana with his parents Andrew and Tracie, believes the wider community does not necessarily have to understand everything about farming but they must continue to trust farmers.
"We need to build the best image we can so when the general public see over exaggerated things in the media they continue to trust us and don't fall for it," he said.
Even if we are the best farmers in the world if we can't get people to pay for our products we don't have a business.- Parndana sheep producer Jamie Heinrich
About four years ago Mr Heinrich participated in a two-day advocates program run by Meat & Livestock Australia in his quest to becoming more involved in industry. He has also recently undertaken a Nuffield scholarship to identify ways to encourage more young people into the sheep industry.
He says social media has provided a platform for producers to reach large numbers of people and has seen some great examples of farmers in other countries doing this well, as well as in Australia.
'Our budget is not as high as those that are against animal agriculture so we need to make the most of what we do," he said.
"It can't all be left to industry bodies like MLA, it is up to us all to tell our story if we want to keep doing what we are doing.
"Even if we are the best farmers in the world if we can't get people to pay for our products we don't have a business."
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