Northwest producers open doors to food professionals and teachers

Sep 28, 2012

Even though Annemarie Taylor teaches animal and vet science to high-schoolers, her Portland, OR-area students don’t necessarily start off the year knowing which end of a cow gets up first. Or knowing a dew claw from a dewlap.

“The majority of my students have never even seen a live beef cow in their lives,” says Taylor.

What they are intimately familiar with, however, is the steady parade of negative media coverage associating the beef industry with cruel animal treatment practices and unsustainable production methods.

“They have a ton of misconceptions,” observes Taylor. “…They’ve seen the documentaries like Food, Inc. and they’ve seen a lot of the negative publicity that’s out there about where our food comes from, and that’s all they know.”

It’s a problem the beef industry has struggled with for years. Removed from the farm for generations, urban and suburban dwellers are no longer familiar with how their food is produced. Compounding the knowledge deficit is the fact that people, especially young people, tend to use the internet as their primary source of information. But wading through the informational cyber-soup of bloggers, special interest groups, attention-greedy media and general schlock offered on-line makes it nearly impossible for city people to piece together an accurate picture of how the beef on their plate was raised and processed.

In an attempt to bridge this gap between producers and the predominantly urban public, northwestern cattlemen–assisted by their state beef councils and cattlemen’s associations–are testing out a startlingly simple solution: Just show them.

The Washington State Beef Commission’s Explore Beef Experience program and the Teachers on the Range program, sponsored by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, are getting people away from their computers and onto the ranch to get a first-hand look at beef production. And both are placing their bets on the increasingly accepted idea that industry transparency is the key to consumer understanding and trust.

In their own ways, both programs lead participants through the stages of beef production over the course of several days, visiting a cow/calf operation, a feedlot and a slaughter facility. At the end of these programs, participants have seen a kill floor, looked at hormone implants, discussed the use of antibiotics, checked out the contents of a feed bunk, climbed on a cattle truck, been on a range tour, and had a host of other opportunities to see, smell, touch and taste the beef production process.

In an effort to expand their reach, both programs also focus their efforts on educating “influencers,” that is, people who can sway the food purchasing and eating habits of others.

For example, the Explore Beef Experience tour targets high-profile individuals in the Seattle, WA, culinary and food service industries: chefs, caterers, dietitians, food bloggers and distributers.

“They’re thought influencers with a lot of consumers,” said Patti Brumbach, executive director at the Washington State Beef Commission, who keeps her ear to the ground to track who in the Seattle culinary community is buzzing about beef.

Teachers on the Range targets a different group of influencers: urban and suburban schoolteachers like Annemarie Taylor, who are responsible for putting ideas into the heads of young Americans.

“When these teachers go through Oregon history, or they go through food preparation, if they have a vegan mentality, they’re going to pass on that vegan mentality to those children,” observed Trent Smith, ranch manager and organizer of the program.

“If they’ve been to a ranch and they’ve seen what goes on …and have actually been able to see where [beef] comes from … that gets passed on to these students.”

What kind of an impact are the programs having? According to both tour participants and organizers, a significant one.

“I wish that that tour was something that everybody could go on. Every restaurant owner, I think, could really get a lot out of it,” said Seattle-area food distributor Eva Sutherland, who supplies beef and other products to restaurants in the Seattle area through a team of over 100 sales reps.

Recently on the Explore Beef Experience tour, Sutherland and some 30 other food industry professionals visited the 30,000-head Easterday Ranches feedlot near Eltopia, WA. Sutherland confessed that she was expecting a stinky experience.

“The biggest surprise to me was how clean the feedlot was,” Sutherland recalled. “There was no smell, there were no flies. They just do a great job of keeping it down. It was amazing.”

Low stress animal handling, and its importance to producing a quality product, was also a revelation to the food industry pros.

“It was all done very quietly,” said Sutherland. I was very impressed by the way everything was handled to keep cattle unstressed.”

Smith’s schoolteachers were no less surprised by the real story behind beef production on a range-based cow/calf operation. Upon arriving at the Durgan Ranch, which Smith manages, “a lot of them thought that they were going to see cattle here in huge corrals,” said Smith. Later, on a range tour, the teachers saw that the cattle roam on thousands of acres for the majority of the year.

Industry research suggests that misconceptions are extremely widespread. For example, a 2010 beef checkoff Consumer Tracking Study found that over one half of beef consumers believe cattle are raised on “factory farms.” Even more surprising, Brumbach related conversations with consumers (not on the tour) who believed beef cattle were raised in 4’ X 8’ crates, or even that feeder cattle were fed directly through a tube inserted in the neck. According to Brumbach, dispelling such misconceptions by giving a transparent view of the facts is the primary strategy behind the tours.

“We think transparency is critical to our believability on this tour,” said Brumbach. “We’re very clear with them that there’s nothing off the table.”

To be sure, getting producers to step outside their normal comfort zone to share all is a work in progress, but Brumbach credits northwestern producers with having the insight to open their doors. Long shy of exposing the less “scenic” aspects of cattle production, such as the slaughtering process, or the use of antibiotics and hormones, pulling back the veil to share the entire production story with the very curious public has been a gradual process for the Northwest beef community. But if the response of participants is any clue, the tell-all approach of Explore Beef Experience and Teachers on the Range is paying off.

“When we started this tour, we thought we were being very transparent,” said Brumbach. “But every year, we started to take more risks, and show more. …It seems that the more transparent we are, the more successful we are in terms of building trust.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent