KANSAS CITY, Mo. – During the opening session of the American Meat Institute’s 2011 Animal Care & Handling Conference, Cargill’s Mike Martin discussed how using transparency in dealing with the media can be a risk worth taking. As the point man when “Oprah Winfrey Show” producers requested a plant tour to demonstrate to viewers how one of world’s largest ground beef processors operates, Martin chronicled the process of opening its doors to the show’s Lisa Ling and camera crews for a look inside the beef-slaughtering plant.

“With the exception of the stunning area, the camera crew had access to the entire facility,” Martin said of the three-hour tour of the company’s Ft. Morgan, Colo., plant earlier this year. He said the decision to participate in the show was made by several key Cargill officials, including Bill Buckner, Cargill’s senior vice president. By participating, the company agreed to allow cameras to shoot footage first at a nearby feedlot and then from inside the beef plant. General Manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman led Ling and the camera crew on a tour lasting twice as long as typical media visits, Martin said.

Producers then requested that Johnson-Hoffman participate in an interview with Winfrey during the taping of the show, as part of a series called “Food 201.” Agreeing to the interview would mean sharing time and the stage with Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and several other books that scrutinize large-scale food production. After agreeing to schedule the on-air interview, Martin and Johnson-Hoffman spent hours rehearsing for the exchange, which he equated to quarterback Tom Brady preparing for a “three-minute drill” in the fourth quarter of a tied football game. “The difference was she was quarterback for 7.3 million households who initially viewed the show,” Martin said.

Arriving at Winfrey’s Harpo Studios in Chicago came with plenty of fanfare and hoopla. While declining the show’s offers of limousine transportation and generous hotel accommodations per Cargill company policy, Martin and Johnson-Hoffman were dazzled by the amenities in the studio’s greenroom, including celebrity photos of previous guests on the show. “It was like Hollywood in downtown Chicago,” he said.

Once the cameras were rolling and after the plant tour segment was shown, Martin said the Johnson-Hoffman interview and even the exchanges between her and Pollan went well and served as a positive story for the company and the industry as a whole. During the interview, Winfrey pointed out that 20 other food companies declined her producers’ requests to participate in the show and she, along with Pollan, praised Cargill for its willingness to participate.

In hindsight, Martin said the decision to shine the spotlight on Cargill was a good one. “Our goal was to tell our story. We wanted to play offense more than defense,” but that strategy required a leap of faith. “It could have turned out differently,” he said. “But everyone at Cargill felt this was a risk worth taking.”