Beef industry media analysis – April-June 2010
In April, Earth Day generated news stories and opinion pieces about how to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, which supported a more than three-fold increase in environmental vegetarianism reporting.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) release of a draft guidance report on antibiotic use in animals prompted widespread reporting on the agency's push for the livestock industry to voluntarily limit antibiotic use in non-therapeutic contexts. These reports were largely negative toward the industry and linked antibiotic use in livestock with drug-resistant infections in humans.
Beef prices and beef demand figured prominently in economics reporting this period. No single development accounted for this coverage, but economics stories often discussed increasing beef prices, particularly its symbiotic relationship with beef demand, such as whether demand is primarily fueling higher beef prices and whether price increases will stunt demand growth.
Media coverage of the U.S. beef industry increased for the first time since the second quarter of 2009 to 949 reports for April-June, a 2 percent rise from January-March.
The favorability of April-June coverage declined 1 point to a still neutral 46 rating. Unfavorable coverage increased 3 percentage points to represent 37 percent of overall reporting. Favorable coverage was up 3 percentage points while neutral coverage fell 6 percentage points to represent 19 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Economics remained the most prominent issue in beef industry coverage this quarter, despite a 15 percent decline in volume from last quarter (to 284 reports). Beef prices emerged as the leading topic of economics reports, discussed in 81 reports.
Nutrition/health coverage increased 17 percent to 267 reports this period, a large portion of which discussed nutritional vegetarianism. The favorability of nutrition/health reports continued to improve, increasing one point to a slightly negative 42 rating.
Beef safety reporting increased this quarter to 259 articles, up 16 percent from the prior period. While media attention on recalls further subsided, reporting on antibiotic use in livestock continued to increase, rising 11 percent since last quarter to 62 reports this period.
Environmental reporting increased this quarter to 258 reports, up from 229 reports last period. Reporting on the environment was also up compared to the same period last year, when the category garnered 242 reports. The tone of environmental reporting fell by 2 points to a slightly negative 44 rating due in part to unfavorable stories surrounding Earth Day.
Animal rights/welfare coverage fell 11 percent this quarter to 269 reports. Media attention on a cattle abuse video and the ongoing debate about antibiotic use in animals contributed to the category's reporting this quarter.
Traditional media coverage of beef and cattle industry issues is analyzed through a special service called CARMA (Computer- Aided Research and Media Analysis). The beef checkoff-funded issues management program commissions this analysis for tracking and responding to beef media coverage in the following areas: diet/health, environment, food safety, beef marketing, animal welfare and economics.
The CARMA system rates media coverage favorability on a scale of zero to 100 based on criteria including headline, length, placement, number and quality of favorable and unfavorable sources and general tone of an article. In this rating system, articles that fall in the 45-55 range are considered neutral or balanced. In the reports on ratings, favorable means favorable to the beef industry.
Because a single article can address more than one issue, it may be analyzed as part of more than one issue area. Therefore, article volume and percentages across the issue areas will not add up.
Economics remained the leading issue category discussed in beef industry reporting this quarter. The prominence of economics in beef reporting occurred despite the issue's volume of stories decreasing by 15 percent from the prior period due in part to subsiding discussion of the beef industry as it relates to the U.S. economy. This quarter, economics coverage was most frequently focused on beef prices, foreign trade and packer issues.
"Beef prices" emerged as the most prominent sub-issue in economics reporting, with coverage increasing 40 percent from last quarter to 81 articles this period. Media attention on beef prices remained neutral overall this period, averaging a 53 favorability rating. However, the quality of such reporting improved, as beef prices coverage had a 3 point increase in its favorability when compared to last quarter's strictly neutral, 50 rating. Notably, this improvement occurred despite newspapers publishing solidly unfavorable letters to editors from the Ohio Corn Growers Association accusing the "meat-industry" of being deceitful in its claims that ethanol production is responsible for rising meat prices so as to "rationalize increase[d] meat costs" (Kansas City Star, June 26). Also, numerous stories on the federal government considering new antitrust regulations for meatpackers ranged from moderately unfavorable to neutral in overall sentiment, due to discussion of new regulations leading packers to pass increased operational costs to consumers by way of higher beef prices.
This less favorable attention was offset by reporting discussing "beef demand" (48 reports, 55 rating), the most favorable leading economics sub-issue this period, in relation to prices. Such coverage often emphasized that beef demand is holding up even as prices rise, or noted how a growing appetite for beef is contributing to increasing prices. Several stories highlighted how consumers are increasing their beef consumption as the economy picks up. For instance, a strongly positive front page story in The Plain Dealer discussed the confluence of factors spurring higher beef prices, such as cattle herds that have thinned, rising demand from European and Asian export markets and a grilling season in the United States that started early due to unseasonably warm weather in April.
"Foreign trade" reporting declined by 44 percent from the year-ago-quarter, when attention on Russia's meat ban and European Union restrictions on U.S. beef imports due to concerns over hormones was heightened, but increased 10 percent from the first quarter of 2010. Attention on foreign trade remained neutral overall, averaging a 51 favorability rating. Foreign trade reporting most often focused on U.S. beef's access to the Japanese and South Korean markets. Stories on renewed U.S. efforts to get Japan to remove restrictions on U.S. beef imports were particularly prominent in April, while foreign trade coverage in May and June most often focused on a U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement (FTA), citing Korean restrictions on beef imports as a point of contention for the two countries.
"Packer issues" (67 reports, 49 rating) garnered greater coverage this quarter compared to both last quarter and the year ago period, rising more than 10 percent from each period. Attention on Tyson Foods' earnings, Cargill settling a lawsuit over E. coli tainted hamburger, an Iowa plant resuming production and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considering new antitrust regulations for meatpackers, accounted for much of the reporting on packer issues this quarter. Reporting on antitrust regulations was particularly prominent. This attention was neutral overall toward the beef industry, as new government oversight into how meatpackers purchase cattle was depicted as possibly aiding smaller ranchers but contrasted as likely resulting in higher retail prices. The most unfavorable reporting on packer issues concerned Cargill's E. coli settlement, in which the company publicly acknowledged responsibility for "life-shattering injuries suffered by a young Minnesota dance instructor after she ate a contaminated burger" (Star Tribune, May 13). However, media discussion of the settlement was not as pervasive as reporting on the government's consideration of new antitrust regulations.
Nutrition/health reporting improved slightly this quarter, averaging a slightly unfavorable 42 rating due in part to the 3-point increase in the favorability of nutritional vegetarianism reporting. Nutritional vegetarianism stories on school lunches continued to subside this quarter, although those that appeared were particularly negative. For example, a strongly negative opinion piece by Brie Turner-McGrievy of the UNC-Chapel Hill Interdisciplinary Obesity Center blamed "meat-heavy" meals at school and at home for the prevalence of conditions like diabetes and heart disease (News & Observer, April 2). The piece negatively compared the nutritional content of a typical hamburger patty compared with a veggie patty and suggested that vegetarian school lunch options would be healthier than those containing meat. A number of stories about school lunches featured discussion of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, which drew mixed reviews for its advocacy of vegetarian lunches in schools. While some letters-to-the-editor expressed support for the group's ideas, a letter by David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom was favorable toward the industry as he spoke out against the organization, calling it a deceptive and radical group pushing a "tofu-only animal–rights agenda" (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7).
Nutritional vegetarianism reporting also included heavy media attention on the Meatless Monday movement, prompted by a resolution passed by San Francisco's Board of Supervisor's declaring every Monday meat-free. Several articles described how the movement was gaining traction, including one story that reported well-known meat lover and chef Mario Batali had joined the campaign. While the article was unfavorable toward the industry overall, Batali's director of sustainability Elizabeth Meltz explained that "Mario still loves meat" but believes in all things in moderation (San Jose Mercury News, May 26). Discussion of meatless Mondays was negative overall due reporting touting the benefits of cutting meat consumption.
Media attention on "beef and fat" (71 reports, 44 rating) rose in prominence this quarter due to a number of studies discussing the role of diet in diseases such as Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer. Early in the quarter, stories about beef and fat centered on a Columbia University study that advised a diet low in saturated fats lowered the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Reporting on the study was unfavorable but typically brief and recommended avoiding foods with high saturated fat, including red meat and butter. A Harvard University study released in May also prompted discussions of beef and fat as reports disputed the idea that red meat consumption was linked to heart disease and diabetes. Unprocessed red meats were discussed favorably, but processed red meat such as hot dogs were cited as the "true dietary villain," resulting in largely negative reporting overall (Boston Globe, May 23). Positive media attention regarding beef and fat included a number of stories about healthy beef cooking, many of which provided tips for cooking hamburgers. For instance, a highly positive piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured dietician and "The Healthy Beef Cookbook" co-author Betsy Hornick, who discussed the health benefits and variety of nutrients in a hamburger (April 28). Hornick explained that leaner beef would have less fat and that the saturated fatty acid in beef – stearic acid – did not have the negative impact on cholesterol that was once believed.
"Lean beef" emerged as the most favorable sub-issue in nutrition coverage this quarter, with 23 reports that averaged a slightly positive 55 rating. Lean beef reporting featured stories about diet guidelines and recommendations, particularly the release of 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called for consumers to move toward a more plant-based diet and away from animal fats such as red meat and cheese, linking the consumption of such foods to health problems prevalent among Americans. Nutrition experts were quick to weigh in and some called for even stronger guidelines regarding red meat consumption, while others urged wise choices when consuming animal fats. Registered dietitian Carolyn O'Neil wrote: "You don't have to cut milkshakes or steaks from a healthy diet. Lean toward low-fat dairy and lean meats. For instance, from flank steak to top sirloin, there are 29 different cuts of beef that qualify as lean with less than 10 grams of fat per serving" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 23).
"Pathogens and beef" remained the leading beef safety sub-issue, with 91 articles reporting on the topic, one fewer than last quarter. Coverage declined by half from the year ago period when attention on recalls and the documentary "Food, Inc." was especially pronounced. Articles about recalls (23 reports, 38 rating) also were far less prominent this period, down nearly 80 percent. Still, recall coverage this quarter was a significant source of media discussion on pathogens and beef. WinCo Foods' hamburger recall was the most prominently reported recall this period. The company announced a ground beef recall due to possible E. coli contamination after privately funded testing ordered by Seattle attorney Bill Marler discovered the pathogen in store-bought samples. Notably, Marler was cited in several of these reports praising WinCo for ordering the recall. Marler's comments moderated the unfavorable nature of several recall-related articles, but the coverage was still moderately negative overall.
Several newspapers reported on The New York Times and its staff receiving accolades, such as a Pulitzer and a Loeb Award, for reporting on contaminated meat and U.S. food safety oversight. Regarding the Loeb Award, a business journalism honor, the Associated Press reported that it was given to The New York Times for "a series of stories detailing how the safety of the nation's food has been compromised by laxly enforced safeguards and industry shortcuts" (June 30). Such coverage was neutral to moderately unfavorable, generally not delving into much depth regarding the original reporting for which the awards were given. Notably, the negative attention of this coverage and the reporting on recalls this period was tempered by more favorable reporting on USDA implementing higher standards for testing of beef intended for school lunches, Walmart's efforts to strengthen E. coli testing and a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report on declining E. coli infections. Still, pathogens and beef coverage was slightly negative overall this period, averaging a 43 rating, which represents a 3-point improvement over last quarter and a four-point improvement compared to the year-ago-period.
"Antibiotics" was the second most prevalent sub-issue in this quarter's beef safety reporting, with 62 reports that averaged a solidly unfavorable 35 rating. Reporting on the topic increased 11 percent from last quarter and by 44 percent from the year-ago-period. This quarter's more extensive coverage was due to reporting on FDA's draft guidance concerning the use of antibiotics in livestock production. News reporting on the guidance suggested that some livestock producers abuse antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons to increase animal growth, thereby contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While such attention was moderately to solidly unfavorable, editorials on the practice of administering antibiotics to livestock were especially critical throughout the quarter. For instance, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial, published before the draft guidance was issued, advocated that the U.S. Congress approve the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act to restrict antibiotics used in livestock production, arguing that the bulk of them administered are not given to sick animals and thus antibiotics become "frightfully less effective in treating a host of potentially fatal diseases…" (April 28). Also, a New York Times' editorial responding to FDA's draft guidance called the move "long overdue but still too timid," adding, "For years now, industrial and many smaller-scale farmers have routinely fed antibiotics to their cattle, pigs and chickens to protect them from infectious diseases but also to spur growth and weight gain while using less feed. That may be good for agriculture production, but it almost surely bad for the public's health." Notably, this editorial warned that "powerful agricultural lobbies usually prevail over public health advocates," encouraging FDA to be more successful this time in its attempt to restrict agricultural antibiotic use (June 30).
Environmental reporting occupied a larger share of beef industry reporting this period due to a marked increase in media attention on beef choices in an environmental context and environmental vegetarianism from last period. Beef choices reporting nearly tripled from last quarter due to widespread discussion of the benefits of organic food. A large portion of these stories focused on whether various organic products provided nutrition and health benefits, but also discussed the environmental implications of organic products. According to the definition of organic reported in several stories, organic meat is raised using environmentally sustainable practices, consuming less fossil fuels in the process. As Derek Przybylo of the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems explained, "We may not know the nutritional benefits for organic food, but there are a lot of other issues we can say for certain, like it cuts down on fossil fuel usage and pesticides," adding that the lack of pesticides protects the ecosystem while the grass diet means grain does not need to be shipped to farmers, reducing carbon emissions (Detroit Free Press, April 10). Stories discussing the environmental benefits of choosing local or organic meat typically drew a negative comparison to traditionally raised beef, resulting in a moderately negative 36 rating overall for the sub-issue.
Following a quarter with comparatively low media attention on environmental vegetarianism, the volume of such coverage increased from 13 reports to 44 reports, a volume more typically witnessed for the sub-issue. Much of the reporting on environmental vegetarianism revolved around Earth Day. Articles with tips for consumers on how to live a more earth-friendly lifestyle were prevalent in newspapers across the country, and recommended cutting or eliminating meat consumption. A large portion of these stories mentioned reducing meat consumption as one of several tips and were only slightly unfavorable toward the industry due to the brevity of discussion. For instance, a slightly negative Chicago Tribune article about how teens could be eco-friendly recommended eating less meat, noting that vegetarian diets use fewer resources than meat-based diets (April 18). Environmental vegetarianism reporting was also sprinkled with less favorable opinion pieces and letters-to-the-editor touting the environmental benefits of eliminating meat consumption and urging readers to adopt a vegetarian diet.
Despite the significant increases in beef choices and environmental vegetarianism reporting, "cattle and wildlife" (78 reports, 50 rating) remained the most prominently discussed environmental sub-issue. Reporting on federal wolf management plans comprised a large portion of reporting on the interaction between cattle and wildlife due to ongoing issues with the status of wolves. In the Western Great Lakes states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the support of livestock owners, plan to petition for the gray wolves' removal from the endangered list, similar to occurrences in Montana and Idaho last year. A New York Times report on the gray wolves in the region featured commentary from frustrated ranchers and wildlife officials, as well as activists who want the wolves to remain on the endangered list (May 29). The story was positive toward the industry, as activist's calls were outweighed by discussion of the threat the wolves pose to humans and livestock.
Coverage of cruelty in production practices reported on several events during the quarter, one of the most prominent being the release of a video depicting cattle abuse at a dairy farm in Ohio. In addition to criticizing the dairy industry, coverage of the video was also negative toward the beef industry as factory farms were frequently discussed generally and the group responsible, Mercy for Animals, was described as a non-profit organization "that publicizes what it calls cruel practices in the dairy, meat and egg industries and promotes a vegan diet" (Associated Press, May 26). Reporting on the video was mostly concentrated in Ohio publications, which often discussed the cattle abuse in the context of the recently established Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. One story noted that the board was already addressing the state's animal care issues and featured a condemnation from board member Toney Forshney, who stated, "There is no debate that these acts are morally reprehensible", but added that the behavior is "not normal" among farmers (Columbus Dispatch, May 27).
The second most prominent animal rights sub-issue was "animal medicine and treatment" (48 reports, 41 rating). This coverage was concentrated in the latter part of the quarter, as the debate over the use of antibiotics in livestock heated up when FDA published a draft guidance paper on the issue. In the report, FDA asked the livestock industry to voluntarily limit the amount of antibiotics given to animals over concerns that excessive antibiotic use has contributed to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. FDA deputy commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein appeared in several articles about the report and described the use of antibiotics in livestock as "a public health issue of some urgency" (Reuters
, June 29). News about FDA's report contained speculation on whether FDA would soon be pushing for tighter regulation of agricultural antibiotic use, with mixed commentary from legislators, trade and activist groups. The beef industry was portrayed negatively by this coverage as the reporting implied that there was a definitive link between antibiotic use in livestock and drug-resistant infections in humans.
This quarter, beef marketing reporting was dominated by discussion of "beef choices" (marketing/retail context), "summer grilling" and "easy beef spectrum" enlightening readers on a range of beef cuts. Media discussion of beef choices totaled 55 reports in the second quarter, representing 37 percent of beef marketing coverage. Beef choices was the least favorable leading beef marketing sub-issue this period, averaging a nearly negative, but still neutral 45 rating in its coverage. The favorability decline corresponded with an increase in negative coverage. Butchers, restaurants and local farms featured prominently in the beef choices discussion, as coverage included several stories highlighting a butcher, restaurant or farm catering to local, organic, natural or grass-finished preferences regarding beef. Such attention depicted the proprietors as capitalizing on a growing trend of consumers who shy away from conventionally raised beef. For instance, an article highlighted Springdell Farms in Massachusetts for its cattle operations. Reportedly, the farm began raising cattle only in recent years and considers its concern for the animals' welfare to be the operation's hallmark. According to ranch hand Jamie Cruz, "We are there with our animals from start to finish. And our customers appreciate how our animals are raised" (Boston Globe, May 19).
"Summer grilling" (53 reports, 58 rating) emerged as the second most discussed beef marketing sub-issue. Coverage of the topic increased 18 fold from the prior quarter as warmer weather conducive to grilling ensued. Notably, 21 summer grilling reports also discussed "easy beef spectrum" (41 reports, 63 rating), informing readers and viewers about the various cuts of beef and the best way to prepare them on the grill. For example, an extremely favorable Fort Worth Star-Telegram article dispensed tips on shopping for steak, comparing a variety of cuts, and detailed the best preparation and grilling techniques (June 30). Overall, attention on summer grilling and easy beef spectrum issues was solidly positive. Such coverage improved the overall quality of beef marketing coverage this period.
Nutritional vegetarianism continued to receive the most media attention, with 108 reports that averaged a 38 rating. The Meatless Monday campaign generated a large portion of nutritional vegetarianism coverage as the movement gained traction through public enthusiasm, including celebrity involvement and the San Francisco City Council's resolution to declare Mondays meat-free in the city. Sir Paul McCartney and chef Mario Batali were both cited in several articles as subscribers to the movement, as well as numerous nutritionists, such as Georgia State University's Chris Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom voiced his support, stating, "Meatless Monday has a nice poetic ring to it. And depending on your choice, the benefits can be an increase in vegetable consumption, more dietary fiber, more vitamins and minerals and healthy plant chemicals, and less cholesterol, saturated and total fat" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution
, May 5). The most widespread media coverage of Meatless Mondays surrounded San Francisco's embrace of the movement. While media outlets reporting on the city's resolution were careful to note that though the act was nonbinding, its supporters saw it as a way to improve "general civic health." One story about Meatless Mondays reported that many groups have taken steps to reduce meat consumption in general, including Baltimore City Public Schools and 32 U.S. hospitals that have joined an initiative to reduce meat purchases by 20 percent (St. Paul Pioneer Press
, June 3). These reports were negative toward the industry as they depicted reduced meat consumption as a healthy lifestyle change.
Media attention on Earth Day prompted a significant increase in environmental vegetarianism this quarter. The favorability of such coverage improved 5 points to a solidly negative 34 rating, as several articles mentioned cutting meat consumption for environmental reasons briefly in Earth Day lifestyle articles. However, more than half of the reports on environmental vegetarianism were opinion pieces, including a story by registered dietician Betsy Berthin, who wrote about the environmental impact of our diets. Berthin's tips to eat more environmentally consciously included cutting out meat and eating a more vegetable-intense diet (Chicago Tribune, April 21).
The volume of ethical vegetarianism stories declined for the second consecutive quarter to 38 reports, down from 49 stories last quarter. Celebrity vegetarians appeared in a sprinkling of ethical vegetarianism articles, including actresses and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) supporters Patricia De León and Pamela Anderson. De León told the San Antonio Express-News that she was working with PETA to educate the Latino community about respecting animals and the nutritional and "cruelty-free" benefits of a vegetarian diet (April 1).
Foreign trade reporting indicated that the Obama Administration is intent on resolving differences with its South Korean counterpart regarding an FTA before the next Group of 20 summit in November of this year. Thus, the beef industry can expect greater attention on the U.S. trade relationship with South Korea, especially concerning U.S. beef exports, in the ensuing months. This presents an opportunity to influence media discussion on the matter and possibly the outcome of the free-trade pact to the benefit of the U.S. beef industry.
Several studies released this quarter associated red meat consumption with health problems including diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. While studies such as these regularly feature in the beef industry's nutrition/health reporting, driving down its favorability, one study this period was less negative toward the industry. Specifically, a Harvard University dispelled popular opinion that unprocessed red meat is linked to heart disease and diabetes. While this finding was favorable toward the industry, the study also echoed other research in its finding that processed meats are associated with such health ailments.
FDA garnered considerable coverage of its draft guidance on the administration of antibiotics to farm animals. Aside from moderately to solidly unfavorable news reports on the matter, which often depicted livestock producers as abusing antibiotics and thereby endangering human health, several publications issued highly negative editorials advocating for strict regulation of what antibiotics can be administered to farm animals and how often. The beef industry would be well served by efforts to highlight in the media how it appropriately administers antibiotics to the benefit of animal welfare.