At a time when the U.S. agrifood industry is under fire, Sonny Perdue remains one of its biggest advocates and cheerleaders.

Perdue, who served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under the previous presidential administration, was a guest speaker at the annual convention of the National Protein and Food Distributors Association on January 26 in Atlanta, Georgia. The NPFDA event was held in conjunction with the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE).

COVID-19 and the supply chain

Perdue said he felt everything in the supply chain was going well prior to 2020, but things changed drastically when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The industry received criticism because supply chain challenges resulted in emptier meat and poultry cases at the grocery store during the height of the pandemic.

But Perdue reassured the members of NPFDA that he appreciates what they do, adding “You all are the supply chain.”

To make a point about how strong the supply chain, Perdue rhetorically asked how many people eat three meals per day without concern of there being an ample food supply. He said few people worried about the supply prior to the pandemic.

And while that is a good thing, it had its drawback. When huge disruptions hit, many consumers for the first time had to worry about how they were going to get their basic grocery staples.

“Frankly, folks, we kind of spoiled our consumers of America over the years as we’ve seen this sophisticated, complex supply chain system and all its efficiencies,” he said.

But rather than being thanked for the work they do, agrifood professionals have been taken for granted.

“I think we should be proud of the fact that we are in this industry,” Perdue said. “It’s a real necessary, vital part of humankind – feeding people.

Change negative perceptions

The consumer essentially drives the food industry, and Perdue said their lack of knowledge about the industry needs to be fixed.

Gone are the days when consumers simply appreciated that those involved in agriculture and food production play roles in bringing food to their tables.

“The challenges ahead, I think we all have to be concerned about. One of those is just the cultural attitude of your business. If you Google professional food production, you’re going to see some pretty nasty things out there about what you do and how you do it,” he said. “While they enjoy the benefits that you provide them, and there’s great value, they want to dog the way they do it.”

There are also those who think “food comes from Kroger, or Costco, or Sam’s or whatever. They have no idea of all the complexities that are involved in getting that food to the end consumer," he said.

“We spoil people, yet they criticize us.”

But if you take time to educate consumers, some minds can be changed.

“You have to go on the offense from an advocacy standpoint tell people how, why and what you do, and in a transparent kind of way. You can’t hide what you do. Some of its not necessarily pretty, but it’s essential to what they enjoy on their tables each and every day,” he said.

That also applies to policymakers at the state and federal level. Perdue urged those in attendance to meet their elected officials and communicate them about every step along the supply chain. Most people in Congress love to hear from their constituents and learn about what they do and why they do it.

Reach the schools

Perdue said as the anti-agriculture sentiment is growing to the point that children are not learning the truths about the industry.

“Folks, in case you don’t know there’s a very small, but very vocal minority that wants to put you out of business. Anti-agriculturalists are alive, well, and growing,” he said.

“If you don’t push back, they will win the hearts and minds of our kids. … They’re showing kids these days movies of packing processes and how evil it is, and how could you do that to an animal – those kind of things. That’s what kids are seeing in elementary school, in middle schools.”

Perdue said its important to learn what is going on in your local schools, and if the messages that students are receiving are not accurate, visit the schools and tell them about how you are providing safe and nutritious food.

“Don’t back up. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t shut up. Stand up and be strong about being proud of telling exactly what you all do,” said Perdue.

The allure of protein

The fact that NPFDA recently underwent a name change was not lost on Perdue. While the acronym is still the same, the P once stood for poultry, but the organization decided to substitute the word protein for poultry because it better reflected the varied business interests of its members.

Perdue congratulated them on the name change, because protein is a word that’s increasingly used among consumers.

“Everything’s protein, protein, protein now. You can’t go thought the aisles without seeing protein. I think you’ve done a good job,” he said. “Protein’s kind of sexy right now, and protein’s good.”