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Looking behind the glass walls

Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute (AMI) provides further insight on the concept, the response and why she believes transparency is no longer just an option

Posted: May 23, 2013


Janet Riley is senior vice-president, public affairs and professional development, with the American Meat Institute (AMI). AMI is a national trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the US and their suppliers throughout America.

Q: Take us behind the scenes. What were the key drivers of Glass Walls?

Riley: There were a few things coming together.

First, there were some activist videos that we were trying to respond to. We wanted to tell media, "No, this isn't how we handle livestock in our plants." But we didn't really have anything to show them to prove what we were saying. So that was very frustrating. It became clear to me that we needed something to be able to show people, to say very clearly "This is how it really happens.'

At the same time, there was enormous demand brewing from consumers for greater transparency.

Another element was some information from the researcher Dr. Wes Jamison. He had concluded through his research that if you showed someone something like slaughter done properly and educated people, you could inoculate them against bad information. Because the reason they're very susceptible to some of the bad news made by activists is that they really don't have anything to evaluate it against. They haven't been in plants and they don't have an exposure to agriculture today. So we needed to give them that ability to think critically.

One other factor was Food Inc. That movie has been shown pretty widely in schools. It has undercover footage and is not narrated properly. My own niece was shown Food Inc. and was very confused by what she saw. One part in particular that confused her was a scene on how we handle pigs. When I tried to explain it to her I understood how helpful it would be to have an accurate, properly narrated video.

Q: How did you get Temple Grandin and the packing plants on board?

Riley: Well I certainly knew Temple would be very receptive because she had been calling for greater transparency for a long time. I ran the idea past her and she said she would be happy to narrate.

She selected two plants that she thought were representative of the industry that would be very typical. We contacted those companies and they both said yes. Our public affairs committee and our board blessed the concept, and we were off.

Q: The pork video was just released on May 8. How would you characterize the response so far?

Riley: We released it on YouTube and I'm amazed at how quickly the views have increased - it's at almost 15,000 views already. The response was not quite this rapid when we released the beef video, which is now at over 50,000 views, so this is really quite significant.

The media coverage and interest has also been very strong. But what's amazing to me is how many teachers are writing to me to request the video. Many cannot access YouTube in the classroom so we are offering the video to them on DVD. I've had over 250 requests from teachers so far and the ones who have already used it have provided very positive feedback.

With all of the use of the video it's very gratifying to me how many people are going to benefit from this learning opportunity. The exposure is very widespread.

Q: What has been the feedback from within the industry?

Riley: There has been nothing but praise for the effort. Certainly our members have been quite enthusiastic and supportive.

An interesting angle is that they see the value not just to the direct consumers. Some of our members who might be supplying a retail grocery chain or a large restaurant chain have said this is helpful to them in educating their customers.

In fact, one of the plants in these videos commented that their corporate office is not alongside the plant. So this is the first time that some of their corporate people have gotten a chance to see what really goes on.

I'm just amazed at how many benefits like this the project is having that I didn't anticipate.

Q: Are more videos on the way?

Riley: We have a turkey one in development. Down the road all things are possible. Certainly, we are encouraged by the response to the project to date and want to build on that.

Q: There is always debate about what are the best approaches to take on this issue. What have you learned that you would reinforce to others in the industry?

Riley: I think the biggest thing is that transparency is really no longer just an option. It's a must. One of the lessons from our project is that when industry practices are shown and explained properly, consumers are receptive to this and find it helpful.

The videos are not something that every consumer needs to watch. But for those who want to see how things are done, it's good to have that resource available.

I think ultimately that every major plant should be making videos and having them at least available. Because you never know when someone is going to take video of your plant that doesn't portray it in an accurate way. You need to have those visual images ready so you can say 'this is what we're really all about.'

You don't want to be attempting to shoot those videos in a crisis. You want to have them ready to go.

Janet Riley is senior vice-president of public affairs and professional development with the American Meat Institute (AMI). AMI is a national trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the US and their suppliers throughout America. More information on the Glass Walls project is available here.


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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