OAK BROOK, Ill. — Companies involved with animal agriculture are at a crossroads for transparency.

“We’re in a new realm of communication and at a crossroads of trying to figure out how to tell our story,” said Julie Berling, director of brand advocacy and marketing for the GNP Co. “We need to be transparent, and consumers want to know more, but a lot of times they really don’t.”

GNP, based in St. Cloud, Minn., markets chicken through the Just Bare and Gold’n Plump brands.

“We just did research on a new packaging design that had an illustrated chicken like a cartoon drawing,” said Berling during a presentation at the North American Strategy Session, hosted by the Center for Food Integrity. “Several consumers said don’t remind me the chicken came from a live animal.”

Berling often reminds those at her company that even if they do everything right, the perception still is they might me doing something wrong just because of the reality of their business.

“We’re acutely aware we owe our chickens our livelihood,” she stressed.

“We need to give consumers accurate facts and images when it comes to raising, handling and processing a chicken,” she said. “And we must tell our story with full disclosure in a way that’s honest, but not overwhelming.”

Proving Claims

Making sure the chickens are healthy and happy is the responsibility of the company, Berling said, and the company must prove its claims.

“We can’t just say we do what we do. We have to find ways to validate that,” she added.

The challenge is to reconnect the farmer to the consumer in a way that shows the people who are producing the food.

“We all are supporting the same basic values — safe food for my family, good nutrition and products that were produced in a responsible manner,” Berling said.

It is important, she said, to talk about today’s American farmer, not the farmer from the 1930s.

In 1930, 21 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture, Berling said.

“Today, less than 1 percent are farmers,” she noted. “In 1930, each farmer fed nine people, and today he is feeding 155 people.”

When providing information to consumers, Berling said, “don’t sell, but tell your story” and don’t use corporate speak. “Be real about what you talk about.”

GNP has added a traceability element to its products. Consumers can trace a package of chicken back to the farm it came from by entering the code from the package on the Internet.

“That brings you to the page that shows the farm family,” Berling said.

“We need to see the story through the consumer’s eyes,” she said. “Before we used words that were all focused on the negative, so we had to change our conversation to focus on positive aspects of what we do.”

It’s about respect, and it’s not always about being right.

“We know vegetarianism is on the rise, so the question is not how we stop meatless Mondays, but how we become part of the conversation and become the meat of choice when meat is served,” Berling said.

Tell Your Story

She advises companies to be fearless with the facts and focus on the issue — not the extreme.

“Most people are in the middle,” she said. “Address the extreme, but focus on the middle.”

GNP publishes an annual Farm to Fork report that focuses on the four Ps — people, planet, poultry and progress.

“For our poultry, we talk about animal welfare certification through the American Humane Association,” Berling said. “And we talk about our active grower management program where we drive accountability back to each of our growers to make sure they’re doing what they need to do.”

Before the development of social media, it took days for news to spread, she noted.

“In the world of social media, it now takes not even a second,” she said. “So we need to respond with speed and bravery.”

Companies should have a plan in place.

“If you don’t get in that conversation early, you’ll be left out of the conversation,” Berling said.