Meat of the Matter: The name of the game? Repetition.

Say something enough times, with enough conviction, and no matter how far-fetched, it begins to seep into the public consciousness. Case in point? Meat causes climate change.

Advertisers long ago discovered something about the way the human brain functions.

After a certain amount of repetition, a set of "facts" become lodged so securely in popular consciousness that they become accepted as conventional wisdom — statements that requires no further analysis.

Because everyone knows they're true.

When products are advertised as offering "world-class [engineering, design, quality]," nobody asks, what exactly constitutes "world-class," and who makes that call?

When marketers brag about offering "the lowest prices and the best [selection, quality, value]," hardly anyone questions the inherent impossibility of a business successfully doing both, while actually staying in business.

Or my favorite, the "improved" product that's "Now 25% [or even higher] more effective/faster-acting/longer-lasting." If making huge gains in quality and/or efficacy were that easy, the question then become, "Why didn't you do that years ago? Why are we only getting an 'improved' product now?"

But we don't ask those questions, because after literally billions of repetitions in multi-millions of ads, we accept that there's at least some truth in all of those statements.

The same phenomenon occurs with regard to animal agriculture and meat consumption. Consider these statements pulled directly from various media:

  • "Meat causes more global warming than cars."
  • "Eating meat is linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and premature death."
  • "About 30% of the world's land area is devoted to meat production."

You might not have seen or heard that last assertion as frequently as the first two, but get used to seeing and hearing it, because it takes repetition to cement an idea in the public consciousness.

Equally important, when certain themes lose their effectiveness, the consumer and advocacy group strategists who plot to leverage the fear and loathing necessary to get people to reach into their wallets simply change course.

Remember "Save the Whales?" When was the last time anybody rolled out that phrase? The whales are doing okay now, so Greenpeace shifted over to bashing GMOs.

Among the anti-meat community, the food-safety angle played itself out, as packers and processors invested billions in microbial intervention technologies. The threat of foodborne outbreaks hasn't been eliminated, but such events happen infrequently enough now that they make for a lousy fund-raising appeal.

Likewise, the animal welfare attack line has proven to have limitations as a tactic to convince people to abandon meat-eating. The reality is that people are disconnected from virtually all food production, livestock as well as plants. Dig deep into the anti-industrial farming campaigns, and the over-application of fertilizers and widespread use of mono-cropping are portrayed as huge problems.

But when was the last time anybody fretted over the substitution of "healthy" soy protein for beef, pork or poultry in all those veggie sausage, burgers and meatless entrées? Consumers just don't connect the cultivation of soybeans with the expansion of industrial farming, so activists don't bother to publicize it.

It's similar to the underground videos showing abusive treatment of animals at packing plants or growout sites. They resonate with people already committed to vegetarianism, but have only a temporary impact on the other 90% of the public.

Two for one

That's why environmental threats now comprise the platform anti-industry activists are constructing to convince people that meat is a four-letter word. Certainly, the disease angle—eat meat, and you'll die a few years earlier — isn't going away, but how many of us are thinking about the end of our lives as we sit down to dinner? Or while we're waiting in the drive-thru line, to suggest an equally common occurrence?

Here's the "new" attack line, excerpted from the website, which styles itself as a fashion-forward, cutting-edge destination for thought leader wanna-bes:

"Too much meat and not enough vegetables is a problem from a health and an environmental standpoint. According to Johns Hopkins (and many, many others), a 'strong body of scientific evidence' links meat consumption to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and earlier death, [while] the [livestock] industry drives 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions."

Two for one. Meat will kill you — if it doesn't kill the entire planet first.

Which means either way, you're dead.

What's never mentioned in any of the screeds that blithely contend that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced dramatically — 15%, after all, is an enormous reduction; it would require taking all automobiles off the road, right? — if everyone just stopped eating meat.

A huge part of any food product's overall carbon footprint is tied up in production, harvesting, storage, transportation, processing, distribution and wholesale and retail marketing — not to mention the impact of food waste.

Nothing in the cultivation/harvesting/processing/distribution chain gets eliminated when the commodity is soybeans, rather than meat. And if animal foods were eliminated, there would need to be a substantial increase in production of plant foods, tree fruits, produce and nuts, all of which could not be accomplished without expanding acreage, inputs, and energy impacts.

The contention that 15% of all greenhouse gases could be eliminated just by choosing a soyburger, rather than a hamburger, is far from realistic.

But to the purveyors of such messaging, it's just a matter of repetition until it becomes reality.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator