'Oprah Show' appearance still resonates

by Lawrence Aylward
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Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, Cargill
Cargill’s Nicole Johnson-Hoffman made impression during her appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” 
(Photo: Cargill)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It has been almost five years since it aired, but Cargill Meat Solution’s Nicole Johnson-Hoffman still hears about her appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

On Feb. 1, 2011, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” aired a segment featuring Johnson-Hoffman, then the general manager of Cargill’s beef processing facility in Fort Morgan, Colo., leading Lisa Ling, a veteran reporter, on a guided tour of the plant with a camera crew in tow. Titled “Inside a Slaughterhouse,” the segment saw Johnson-Hoffman taking Ling through every step of the beef manufacturing process, from feedlot to harvest floor to final packaging and shipping. More than 7.3 million households tuned into the show.

In addition to the six-and-a-half minute video of the tour, the show also featured a roundtable discussion between Johnson-Hoffman, Winfrey and Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and a critic of modern agribusiness.

“I do still hear about it, which amazes me,” Johnson-Hoffman, now the vice president and US managing director of Cargill Value Added Meats and its McDonald’s Business Unit, told MEAT+POULTRY recently. “People still remember the program and recognize me [from being in it], which I can’t quite believe. I guess what I take away from that is that beef processing plants are fascinating places. The work done in those plants is really inherently interesting. I believe in my heart that the program was memorable because the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan is fascinating to see.”

The impetus for Johnson-Hoffman’s appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was a story on Cargill’s beef operations that ran in August 2010 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The story focused on how Cargill operates to ensure safety for ground beef consumption. The reporter of the story and a photographer also received a tour of Cargill’s Fort Morgan beef plant.

Three days after the article appeared on the front page of the Star Tribune’s Sunday edition, Cargill received a call from an associate producer at Harpo Productions, the parent company of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” who was interested in doing a similar story for television. Cargill officials convened to talk about the opportunity and decided to participate. The footage was taped in January 2011.

By participating, Mike Martin, Cargill’s director of communication, says Cargill entrusted Johnson-Hoffman and himself with upholding the image and reputation of not only the company itself but of the entire beef industry.

“There was risk involved,” Martin says. “You never know what the final result is going to be when it hits the air. And the company was willing to place its trust in us to manage that risk.”

Martin says he and Johnson-Hoffman established a good rapport and trust with Ling and the show’s production and camera crew, which impacted how the story was presented. Martin says Cargill was pleased with the fair and balanced approach taken with the story.

Johnson-Hoffman answered Ling’s questions candidly.

“There are animal activists who believe defiantly that this is cruel. How do you respond to that?” Ling asked Johnson-Hoffman during the plant tour.

“I would not ridicule people who believe you shouldn’t eat animals,” Johnson-Hoffman answered. “But I would say we are committed to doing it right. I believe that when animals are handled with dignity and harvested carefully that that is the natural order of things.”

While Johnson-Hoffman was honored to be the person selected to be on the show and provide the plant tour, she admits she was terrified.

“I can’t pretend that it wasn’t scary for me,” she adds. “But it was an opportunity to speak for Cargill’s employees in Fort Morgan and the farm families that supply cattle to that plant, as well as the beef production industry in the US in general. I felt that if I was going to get that opportunity, I couldn’t pass it up.”

Martin says Johnson-Hoffman was the obvious choice to appear on the show, especially given that most of the show’s viewers are stay-at-home mothers who are the primary shoppers of the food that their families eat.

“Nicole connected with the audience,” Martin says.

Initially, representatives of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” wanted Pollan to tour the plant and ask questions to Johnson-Hoffman. But Cargill officials questioned whether Pollan, given his views on large-scale food production, could provide an unbiased view as a reporter. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” then assigned Ling to the story.

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