For many busy swine veterinarians, the fast-food restaurant became a friend to time management. Although the speed was a definite plus, the original paper wrap on the burgers made it a challenge to keep the burger sufficiently warm until it could be consumed. Eventually, through the miracle of modern science, the insulating foam food container replaced the old-fashioned paper wrap. Wonderful! Fast and warm! We could have it all. We all recognize today that those funny little “clamshell”-shaped foam containers have since gone the way of the dodo bird, and their disappearance happened about as quickly as any “extinction event” has ever transpired.
What happened? The Environmental Defense Fund had targeted the foam container as an environmental issue. McDonald’s USA had been vigorously working out a plan to justify the continued use of the foam container. They had pulled together a body of scientific evidence that supported the use of the foam container as an “environmentally friendly” alternative to the less expensive and less effective paper wrap. Investments in a foam-container recycling campaign had been made. The new recycling program was on the verge of being rolled out to the public. Despite all of this corporate expense and effort, the little foam clamshell suddenly disappeared in a matter of weeks, being replaced by the original paper wrap and supported by some new cooking technologies.
When queried about the sudden reversal, then president of McDonald’s USA, Mr Edward H. Rensi, was quoted as saying that “It was not a complicated management process.” He then went on to elaborate that “Although some scientific studies indicate that foam packaging is environmentally sound, our customers just don’t feel good about it. So we’re changing.” You have to applaud, at the very least, the ability to be direct and to the point. As uncomplicated as this was for McDonald’s, it undoubtedly was not a fun time if you were in the foam-container business.
The decision-making process for today’s corporations appears to have changed little when it comes to maintaining the relationship between the company and customers. Science is important, but it can go only so far in explaining consumer preferences. This sort of decision-making process can drive any self-respecting swine veterinarian to distraction. After all, as swine veterinarians, we are trained to be scientists and critical thinkers. We recognize and applaud those in our profession that are proficient in science. Perhaps not quite elevated to “rock star” status but are getting close. As a profession, we continue to challenge ourselves to better employ evidence-based medicine in day-to-day practice decision making. In fact, this rigorous thought process will be even further demanded by “society” as part of our increasing role in supervision of issues such as antimicrobial use.
As a profession, our default approach to almost any issue will no doubt continue to be a scientific one. We are great at this! Unfortunately, everyone does not think the same way that we do. Even more unsettling is the realization that many consumers do not really “think” their way through an issue. They may simply let their feelings guide them. Edward H. Rensi at MacDonald’s USA decided that, in the final analysis, customer feelings would determine the fate of the foam food container. This was the reality that he had to deal with. After taking the scientific approach as far as they thought that they could, McDonald’s decided to “face the brutal facts,” as they understood them, and get on with making a change.
The manager of a farm that I visited had prominently posted a version of the Serenity Prayer. This version read as follows. “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” This has always been one of my favorite sayings. As an organization, the AASV is constantly faced with prioritizing the issues that we could deal with in light of the resources that are available. There will be times where we can make arguments that will change industry direction. Unfortunately, science and logic will not always prevail. In some cases, as an organization, we will need to collectively face the brutal facts and get on with managing change. In any case, we will continue to do the best that we can for the sake of our profession, our pork supply industry, and most importantly, the pigs that are in our care.
-- George Charbonneau, DVM AASV President-elect