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Hallmark/Westland a 'perfect storm' for activists

LIVE FROM AMI: Hallmark/Westland a 'perfect storm' for activists

By Tom Johnston on 3/10/2008 for

NASHVILLE, Tenn. � The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. recall of 143 million pounds of beef prompted by an animal rights group's videotaped footage of workers abusing non-ambulatory dairy cows amounted to a "perfect storm" for the anti-meat movement, said Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute.

"It truly was a perfect storm in animal welfare because not only was there horrible footage � and visuals obviously sell in our media-driven world � but [Hallmark/Westland] was also a school lunch supplier. I  think the plant was shocked by what they saw and not prepared to deal with the media storm that resulted," Riley said, addressing AMI's Annual Meat Conference here.

Riley chronicled the timeline of how the videotape surfaced from the Humane Society of the United States and burst into an explosion of media coverage that exemplifies the major communication challenges the meat industry faces.

Media coverage of the case has hardly abated, which has forced the industry, "to proactively inform the public on how committed meat processors are to proper animal handling," Riley said.

"We were so shocked by it, because it is so different from how we operate. It is absolutely in contrast to typical conditions in the meat industry," she added.

Communication challenges

Communication challenges facing the meat industry, Riley said, include:

     * Uninformed consumers are highly suggestible

     * Available images of good practices are few and far between

     * Reporters are generally unfamiliar with the industry

     * Technologies such as YouTube help proliferate images

     * Access to meat plants is restricted

Riley urged meat processors to consider shooting video and taking photos of their good practices to share with the media. AMI is already in the production stages of its own DVD detailing professional animal handling practices that reporters will be able to watch on their computer screens as they are working on stories.

"Shoot B-roll and take photos on a good day, so you have them on a bad day," Riley said. "Hallmark/Westland never imagined they were going to face what they have faced. Wouldn't it have been nice if they had been able to acknowledge how bad the video was, but been able to explain [how they normally operate]?"

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