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Can perceptions of animal agriculture be changed? Yes, they can.

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Most people don’t like industrial agriculture, a new national poll shows. Yet, these same folks have a favorable view of well-known meat and poultry companies.

Digging into the results of the survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reveals both some not-so-surprising results as well as intriguing findings that offer encouragement and guidance for the industry.

It is no surprise that when presented with statements like “CAFO waste emits gasses that can carry disease-causing bacteria and fungus, which can cause death” and “Hog, chicken and cattle waste has contaminated 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states,” people overwhelmingly said they were concerned about health problems and air and water pollution. “Push polling” is nothing new. This is not an objective survey, but a tool to promote a point of view.

Based on the questions, we shouldn’t be shocked that most of those surveyed (about 57%) support greater government oversight of large-scale farms.

That being said, this is one more indicator that animal ag’s social license is at risk. Social license is the privilege of operating with minimal restrictions based on maintaining trust. Once lost, social license is replaced with social control, which brings the threat of regulation, legislation and litigation designed to compel businesses to perform to stakeholder expectations. Many states and local communities have already taken steps to exercise greater social control over animal agriculture.

Another finding from the poll seems, at first, to be at odds with the rest of the results: The survey asked people if they were familiar with four companies and, if so, how they viewed them.

Three large animal protein companies all received positive scores: Tyson, 46% favorable to 22% unfavorable; Perdue, 38% favorable to 17% unfavorable; and Smithfield, 27% favorable to 12% unfavorable. The fourth brand, Beyond Meat, came in at 14% favorable to 12% unfavorable.

How did these businesses manage to “flip the script” to be perceived in a positive light compared to industrial agriculture as a whole?

It’s not the result of chance or good luck. Tyson, Perdue and Smithfield have been intentional and strategic about making sustained investments to enhance their reputation and build trust. They have developed strategies to communicate their corporate social responsibility goals and sustainability practices.

These companies took on the difficult task of shifting the public’s view of “industrial farming” to see the faces of the people involved in raising and processing food. This is neither a quick nor easy process. It requires a commitment to transparency and to follow through on promises. Transparency also involves owning up to mistakes, one of the most difficult, yet powerful things a business can do to build trust.

Large corporations are not the only ones that need to think about how to build trust. The Johns Hopkins survey included 1,000 people randomly selected from across the country, as well as 400 residents each from Iowa and North Carolina, two states with a significant presence of CAFOs. Freedom to operate starts at home and farmers, processors and their supply chain must recognize that earning trust should be part of every business plan.

This survey is evidence that while the task of restoring trust in large-scale animal agriculture is difficult, it is possible, and the results are well worth the effort.

By Charlie Arnot
CEO, Center for Food Integrity