Beef industry media analysis – October-December 2011
Even though exports to South Korea remain below what they were in 2003, it is still a key market for U.S. beef exports.
The image campaign for U.S. beef in Korea has helped regain market share over the past three years, helping U.S. beef grow from zero to nearly 38 percent while Australian beef has dipped from about 75 percent share to less than 50.
The recently approved free-trade agreement between South Korea and the United States will provide significant benefits on both sides – helping reduce food costs for Korean consumers while creating new opportunities to boost export premiums for U.S. beef producers, processors and exporters.
Traditional media coverage comprised 798 reports, with 30 percent of stories earning favorable ratings. Conversations about economics remained the most prominent discussion category this quarter. This quarter saw an 81 percent increase in stories discussing beef exports and a 61 percent decline in coverage about the impact of inclement weather. Beef prices continue to be mentioned in this discussion, and came up in a quarter of all economics stories.
Nutrition/health was the least favorable issue category, averaging a slightly negative 41 rating in its coverage. Nutritional vegetarianism remained a leading topic and beef’s connection to heart disease and cancer continued to figure prominently in nutrition/health coverage this quarter.
Beef marketing reporting had the best improvement of all issue categories. As unfavorable reporting on beef choices subsided and positive discussion of various cuts’ qualities grew, beef marketing’s favorability improved seven points to a moderately positive 64 rating.
Social media coverage consisted of a sample of 869 posts that included content from social video sites, blogs, message boards and Twitter. The share of favorable and neutral social media posts increased this quarter, while shares of unfavorable coverage decreased. These changes however, did not result in a change in overall favorability of social media, which remained a slightly unfavorable 43.
Beef safety remained the most prominent issue category, discussed in 379 posts averaging a slightly unfavorable 40 rating. Production generated the second-highest volume with 369 posts averaging a moderately unfavorable 39 rating. Again this quarter, social media discussion of each issue category averaged a lower favorability than in traditional media. The largest difference was seen in beef marketing, in which social media reports discussed the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef more frequently than in traditional reporting.
Discussions of nutrition/health were featured prominently in social media coverage this quarter, making up 33 percent of coverage and averaging a moderately unfavorable 39 rating. While traditional media coverage was driven by discussion of beef and its relation to heart disease and cancer, social media posts focused more on the nutritional facts of different beef choices.
Traditional and social 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 response efforts for beef media coverage in the following areas: diet/health, environment, food safety, beef marketing, animal welfare and economics. Because of the large number of social media posts, only a representative sample of this coverage is analyzed through CARMA.
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.
Animal rights reporting rebounded in volume this quarter, rising 15 percent to 128 reports in the October-December period. Favorability of coverage this quarter also improved, up one point to a neutral 45 rating.
Ethical vegetarianism remained the most prominent topic in animal rights reporting, rising two percent to 42 stories. Attention on the topic was strongly negative this quarter, as favorability of ethical vegetarianism coverage dropped four points to a 31 rating. The negative attention on this topic came from stories about the popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets as well as stories about the Meatless Mondays trend. This unfavorable coverage included stories on a vegan chef challenge, celebrity endorsements of a vegan diet, and recommendations for Meatless Monday dining options.
Cruelty in production practices was the leading topic trending upward, increasing
93 percent in volume. The topic was mentioned in 29 stories averaging a slightly unfavorable 43 rating, up seven points from the previous quarter.
Animal rights discussions comprised 27 percent of the beef industry’s social media coverage, up three percentage points from the July-September period. Meanwhile, the issue category again received moderately negative attention, averaging a 38 rating for the third consecutive quarter.
Cruelty in production practices remained the leading topic of discussion with 100 reports representing 56 percent of animal rights’ social media coverage. Reports on cruelty varied widely, including prominent discussion of vegetarians and vegans citing the mistreatment of animals in food production as a reason for their diet choice, and various efforts to expose the ills of factory farming for the purpose of convincing people to stop eating meat. Overall, this coverage was moderately unfavorable but improved two favorability points from last quarter.
The least favorable topic within social media coverage of animal rights was ethical vegetarianism, averaging a solidly unfavorable 32 rating while experiencing a 59 percent increase in volume. These posts ranged from neutral to extremely unfavorable. The most unfavorable of them discussed meat grown in a Petri dish as a potential alternative for those looking to avoid animal protein due to ethical concerns.
Beef marketing traditional media coverage fell 20 percent to total 79 reports this period. Coverage improved in favorability by seven points to a moderately positive 64 rating.
Beef choices trended lower than the last period with half as much coverage. This decline coincided with fewer negative stories on efforts to market non-traditional forms of beef as better than conventional beef, lowering attention on beef marketing but contributing to its favorability improvement.
Cuts preparation /qualities was again the leading beef marketing topic. Reporting in numerous outlets featured butchers and chefs discussing cuts’ qualities and preparation, including which cuts are best for consumers with health or budget concerns.
Beef marketing remained the least discussed category in social media, and was discussed even less frequently than it was in traditional media. Of all social media stories, only five percent fell in the beef marketing category. Beef marketing’s social media coverage was less favorable than traditional coverage and averaged a neutral 49 rating. However, attention on new beef products/cuts helped improve favorability by nine points from the last period. Several blog posts discussed a Reuters piece on declining beef consumption and highlighted industry efforts to develop new beef products and cuts that add value for the producer and provide cost-savings to the consumer.
Posts mentioning beef choices remained the leading topic in this category, although the overall amount of posts declined by eight percent from the last period. This coverage averaged a 47 rating and included discussions about finding organic and natural beef at local farmers’ markets and butchers.
Beef safety coverage received less media attention this period, down by 37 percent to 150 reports. The favorability of coverage improved two points to a still-neutral 49 rating.
Pathogens and beef continued to be a leading topic with coverage including beef recalls by Manning Beef LLC and Commercial Meat Co. as well as recalls by Hannaford Supermarkets and Tyson Fresh Meats – all of which were due to suspected E. coli contamination. Coinciding with diminished recall-related discussion, the favorability of pathogens coverage improved, rising from a slightly negative 43 rating to a neutral 46 rating. That reporting on pathogen-related recalls was less intensely negative this period helped the topic’s favorability, as did positive attention on industry efforts to protect the meat supply from harmful pathogens.
Beef safety assurance was the most favorable beef safety topic, increasing 15 points to a moderately positive 63 rating. While past discussions of beef safety assurances often appeared in recall and food-borne illness stories, discussion from this period included more highlights of industry efforts to assure beef safety not connected to a particular recall. A USA Today story on safeguarding the beef supply from E. coli depicted the beef industry as proactive in adopting technology to enhance beef safety. This highly favorable piece, as well as other positive beef safety assurance discussions, supported the overall improvement in beef safety’s favorability.
Beef safety was again the most prominent issue category discussed by social media. However, it decreased in volume this period, with posts on safety issues totaling only 44 percent of social media coverage compared with 51 percent last period. The favorability of beef safety stories fell one point to a moderately negative 40 rating, due to discussions of cattle feedstuffs that include contaminants and allegedly contribute to E. coli growth in cattle.
Pathogens and beef was the leading topic in social media, discussed in 52 percent of beef safety coverage. Posts on E. coli-related recalls drove pathogens’ dominance with 33 percent of beef safety’s social media posts addressing recalls. Considerable discussions about production practices fostering the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria also contributed to the volume of posts on this topic.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) discussions increased 50 percent to 27 posts, which averaged a slightly negative 42 rating. This coverage included posts claiming American beef has a high risk for BSE and is not tested enough for BSE.
Economics issues continued to dominate beef industry coverage with the category’s share of total reporting falling only one percent to 41 percent of all industry reporting. The volume of reports on economics decreased 17 percent from last quarter. Economics’ favorability improved two points to a still-neutral 53 rating.
Beef prices overtook the impact of weather disasters for the leading topic in the category. Coverage of beef prices included mentions of retailers and fast food chains passing higher costs onto consumers by raising prices on beef offerings, as well as coverage of drought conditions harming cattle ranchers and fueling higher prices. The favorability of beef pricing stories improved two points to a still-neutral 52 rating. That improvement was in part due to reporting on ethanol production’s role in rising beef prices and several stories highlighting industry efforts to offset higher prices. A Reuters story reporting on waning U.S. beef demand mentioned the beef industry catering to tighter consumer budgets by developing new, less expensive steaks and promoting smaller portions of higher-end cuts at the retail level.
Heightened attention on foreign trade and legislative/regulatory issues, prompted largely by Congressional approval of free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, contributed to economics’ prominence in beef industry reporting. Discussion of Japan easing restrictions on U.S. beef imports and its interest in joining a trans-Pacific free trade area spurred foreign trade’s emergence as the second most prominent economics topic. Foreign trade coverage rose 81 percent from last quarter to total 78 reports this period.
Economics received the next to last amount of coverage on social media this quarter, with beef marketing coming in last. Even so, economics’ share of social media coverage rose from 13 percent last period to 17, mainly because of greater discussion of the beef industry’s contribution to the U.S. economy and also foreign trade issues. Foreign trade’s share of economics coverage doubled to 30 percent. Although trade stories remained neutral overall, again averaging a 53 rating, their increased prominence contributed to an improvement in economics’ favorability, which rose from a slightly negative 43 rating to a neutral 47 rating.
The leading economics topic in social media was once again beef prices. Forty-six percent of economics stories discussed beef pricing, up from 41 percent last period. Beef price stories averaged a slightly negative 43 rating, which marked a three-point improvement. While several posts continued to decry higher beef prices and tout cheaper meat alternatives, a larger share of the conversation on beef pricing was neutral, lacking criticism of the beef industry.
Despite a decline in favorability in the discussion of cattle and public lands and legislative/regulatory issues, the favorability of environmental reporting increased three points to a still-neutral 50 rating. Greater discussion of cattle and global warming, which also improved nine favorability points to a moderately unfavorable 39 rating, helped increase the favorability of the environment issue category.
Discussion of legislative/regulatory issues rose 79 percent to 25 stories this quarter and was slightly favorable with a 56 rating, three points lower than the previous mark. Coverage included mentions of the controversy surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation of farm dust.
There were 175 posts on the environment this quarter, down 14 percent. Coverage averaged a moderately unfavorable 41 rating, a one-point improvement from the previous period. While the percentage of positive coverage remained under 10 percent, the percentage of negative coverage decreased to just over 50 percent while neutral coverage increased to 41 percent.
Beef and air quality trended upward the most within this category on social media. Social media coverage of beef and air quality rose 67 percent to 15 posts. The topic overall improved in favorability five points to a slightly unfavorable 40 rating. Many of these posts discussed the regulation of farm dust by the EPA and a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that prohibited the EPA from strengthening these regulations.
Cattle and water use was the least favorable topic this period, with 20 reports averaging a strongly unfavorable 28 rating, three points lower than the previous quarter. Several solidly and strongly unfavorable posts on producing meat in a Petri dish mentioned saving water as a benefit of the process in addition to saving energy and land resources.
Nutrition/health coverage decreased 40 percent to 135 reports. Reporting this quarter averaged a moderately unfavorable 41 rating compared to slightly unfavorable 42 rating last period. A substantial increase in more favorable beef choices coverage, as well as favorable discussion of lean beef contributed to the increase in favorability.
Although reporting on nutritional vegetarianism decreased 27 percent, the topic remained the volume leader this quarter. The favorability of nutritional vegetarianism declined two points to a 33 rating.
While the volume of reporting on lean beef declined by 24 percent this period, the favorability of these reports increased dramatically to a 70 rating. Several highly favorable reports highlighted lean beef as part of a healthy diet.
Nutrition/health discussions appeared in a third of social media coverage this quarter. The issue category’s favorability rating stayed at a moderately unfavorable 39 rating. Just as in traditional media, nutritional vegetarianism was the leading topic within social media nutrition/health reporting, mentioned in nearly half of posts. This lower performance in social media was mainly due to highly unfavorable discussions about the nutritional benefits of not eating meat, including
the suggestion that red meat consumption leads to prostate cancer.
The most favorable discussion within the category this quarter was about lean beef. Discussions about lean beef averaged a neutral 52 rating over 30 posts. Several highly favorable reports on a study released in December that determined lean beef can be part of a heart-healthy diet contributed to
The least favorable topic this period was protein & obesity, mentioned in five articles averaging a highly unfavorable 22 rating. The most unfavorable article was an extremely negative interview with Nicholas Genovese, a scientist at the University of Missouri who has been researching the production of
in-vitro meat. In the lead paragraph, the reporter cites a PETA statistic that states eating animal protein increases the risk of developing obesity.
Beef producers/cattlemen/ranchers was the leading topic in production coverage, mentioned in 36 reports. This attention was slightly favorable overall, with beef producer stories averaging a 56 rating. The coverage included stories on drought forcing ranchers to cull their herds or ship them thousands of miles away to access healthier pastures, as well as mentions of beef producers harmed by cattle rustlers. These negative posts were offset by positive stories on ranchers’ environmental stewardship and contribution to economic growth and posts about efforts to recruit and train a new generation of cattle men and women.
Discussion of production topics appeared in 42 percent of all social media stories this quarter. The favorability of this coverage averaged a moderately unfavorable 39 rating, eight points lower than the category’s rating in traditional media. This lower rating is due to posts about the business of “big agriculture” which appeared in 24 percent of social media coverage compared to 6 percent in traditional media. These posts received a slightly unfavorable 41 rating, fourteen points lower than the topic’s score for traditional media.
The leading topic of discussion within this category was antibiotic use, which was mentioned in 124 posts and averaged a solidly unfavorable 37 rating. Numerous reports disparaged the use of antibiotics in beef production, often noting that they would not be needed if cattle were kept in better conditions.
The least favorable topics of discussion within beef production were both factory farming and beef choices, each averaging a solidly unfavorable 34 rating over 89 and 76 reports, respectively. Both of these topics were mentioned in posts on choosing beef from cattle that have been grass fed, or posts encouraging readers to eat animals that have been raised humanely.
While the volume of reporting on the price of beef was significant, its impact on the tone of beef industry discussion was minimal. Often, media outlets depicted beef as one of many staples that are increasing in price. As long as consumers continue to feel that rising beef prices are outside of industry’s control, coverage on the subject should remain relatively neutral.
With coverage of cattle herds being transplanted north, often highlighting how drought conditions around the country are harming ranchers, the beef industry may be well-served by depicting the cattle migration as a matter of both animal welfare and economics. Focusing attention on ranchers’ concern for livestock well-being, as well as on how re-locating rather than culling herds aims to stabilize the nation’s cattle supply, and in turn meat prices, would likely benefit the beef industry’s media profile.
Beef marketing, beef safety and nutrition/ health all saw substantial declines in coverage this quarter. While the volume of beef marketing coverage is often minimal, beef safety and nutrition/health can have sizable impacts on the beef industry’s media performance. These categories often contain intensely negative discussion of the beef industry, however, continuing to counter this discussion with positive portrayals of lean beef or foodborne illness prevention efforts can help mitigate much of that unfavorable coverage.