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Both sides try to educate about food production

The scarecrow, who appears in Chipotle's animated new online-only ad.
The scarecrow, who appears in Chipotle's animated new online-only ad.

When both sides of the food debate say they are educating the public, who are you to believe?

So we’re arguing again about differing views of food production, thanks this time to a new Chipotle ad.

Last week Chipotle, the fast-food upscale Mexican chain, published a three-minute animated video called “The Scarecrow,” a darker piece than the previous “Back to the Start,” another controversial Chipotle video that also criticized industrialized farming and advocated for local growers and grass-fed, free-range beef and pork.

The scarecrow, a sad hayseed stick-man, works for Crow Foods, Inc., the big food processor that creates products marked “100 percent beef-ish.” As Fiona Apple slowly sings “Pure Imagination,” the scarecrow takes a tour of the big, dark factory, including a look inside a giant mechanical cow to see a doe-eyed animal in a box. He (and viewers) flinch as the door closes and a shadow falls over the sad cow.

As you might imagine, those on the Chipotle side of the debate think it’s a “hauntingly beautiful” and “brilliant” take-down of Big Ag.  Farm country, of course, has another opinion.   

“This is exactly what you’ve done Chipotle; taken consumers for a ride in your imagination,” wrote David Hayden in a blog post. “Your latest video just slapped farmers and ranchers across the face.”

Hayden, who grew up on his family’s farm in Kentucky and now works for a meat processing company, sparked an online debate when he called out Chipotle for what he said were inaccuracies and a lack of integrity because the meat served by the company obviously comes from somewhere. Pumping chickens full of hormones, as the animated ad did, he said, is illegal.

In fact, the FDA does outlaw the use of hormones in chicken – but large-scale operations use other drugs to quickly fatten the birds, mostly antibiotics.

The ad – which won’t be broadcast on television but rather gets its views virally – is interesting in that it’s aimed at Millennials, who want to know where their food comes from but also have a distrust of brand marketing. (Chipotle’s logo shows up briefly at the end of the video.)

The ag industry knows this – they’ve read the consumer surveys about the next generation.  And there are many educational efforts underway, some funded by the large companies, including AgChat Foundation and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers.

But there is still a large divide between the general public, the press and the farming industry.

I recently had a chance to talk about this issue with Temple Grandin, the much lauded animal scientist whose life has been made into an HBO movie. We didn’t talk about the Chipotle ad, but rather the distrust the ag industry has often displayed with the press and public.

The industry has not been good with communicating with the public, Grandin said, and has mostly stayed within its boundaries. That doesn’t help them get a good view of the world, she said, as she does on her book tours and visits to family back East.

“I’m having much more contact with the general public than the people in the corporate office at the plant. There’s a tendency to get a 'circle the wagon' mentality and I think it’s because they get scared. It’s a big scary world out there. I know it sounds kind of silly to say that, but I know these people.”

Grandin is heartened by the new world of aggie bloggers and those on social media, because people in the industry need to learn to explain what they do, she said.

“I tell people in ag we have to look at everything we do and go, ‘Could you explain that to your wedding guests? How about your out-of-town guests from New York?’ A well-run beef processing plant passes that test. I’ve taken non-industry people through them. You’ve got to explain stuff. ‘Even though the animal is brain dead, that leg will still kick. The spine takes five minutes to die.’ You explain things and they learn about it.”

This isn’t the last we’ll hear about a controversial Chipotle ad. USA Today reports that the chain will launch more videos, because “we're trying to educate people about where their food comes from," said Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer. From the USA Today piece:

The move precedes a series of four, TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014. For Chipotle, it's all about linking its name with the strong Millennial values to eat better, eat local — and brand lightly.

So stay tuned…to YouTube.