Conference stresses transparency

Oct 5, 2012

Transparency was at the center of the table in Denver last week. While the nation turned its attention to Colorado for other reasons, the Colorado beef industry turned its attention on a new effort at building greater consumer trust in beef.

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Colorado Beef Council, together with Colorado State University and the Center for Meat Safety and Quality, as part of the checkoff program, put on the first Beef Transparency = Trust conference. The event focused on a range of issues facing the beef world, particularly the value of transparency, and tried to create a seminar/open forum-style setting to discuss the concept. The sponsors hope to continue the effort into the future.

In attendance were producers from all stages of production, representatives from universities, food service, pharmaceutical companies, physicians, and media outlets both traditional and otherwise.

Topics and directions of conversation varied, with presenters speaking on a producer-to-producer level to discuss the perspectives and concerns of consumers regarding health and beef. Through all of it, the underlying theme was the value of transparency in the industry. The implication is that with improved transparency comes improved trust, which in turn comes with an improved beef industry.

Several speakers presented the industry side of transparency. Even within that there was a lot of variety in the perspectives and purposes. Chandler Keys of JBS began the substantive talks by outlining the full life cycle of a beef animal and all the different operations which touch it and which it influences. Though this might seem an odd topic to present at an industry conference, he defended the need for it.

“We all don’t start off on the same page on how this industry works. If you quizzed the industry on how it works, you’d get a lot of failing grades.”

He pointed out the variety and uniqueness, especially of cow/calf operations, and the fact the different stages of production—from the ranch to the packing plant—don’t necessarily communicate well with each other.

Other speakers, such as Sara Shields and Anne Burkholder— both cattlewomen who love telling their stories of raising and feeding cattle—told stories which followed up well with Keys’ point that the different production stages need to know how each other operate.

Burkholder shared an anecdote where, back in April, a follower of her blog asked whether lean finely textured beef (LFTB) was safe and she had to find out what it was herself. Because she tries to tell the story of feeding cattle at a feed yard through her blog—Feed Yard Foodie— she has developed a rapport and trust with people around the country. And because her readers had trust in her and for her information, they turned to her for information when they had questions. That she didn’t know that side of production caused a momentary problem, but once she educated herself and was able to share that information, her readers were more confident about the LFTB issue.

Acclaimed animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin spoke on the value of transparency. In presenting and discussing the American Meat Institute’s Glass Walls program, she gave examples where transparency improved the economic well-being of the industry, the welfare of the animals, and the confidence of consumers.

Grandin described how two of the large companies she works with—Cargil and JBS—have embraced her video auditing system where a third party group can tune into video surveillance at random intervals to ensure everything is being done properly in the slaughter plant.

“That prevents the problem of acting good when the auditor with the clipboard is around.”

Of course the welfare of the animals has improved as transparency has improved. Grandin mentioned frequently how slaughter plants in which video surveillance/auditing systems have been installed often had to reevaluate staff because some people “just wouldn’t put the prod down.”

Grandin also spoke of the reactions of consumers and other people she’s taken on slaughter plant tours. The repeated reaction she’s encountered is “that’s not as bad as I thought” and she described how outsiders would accept and be unphased by some of the more graphic elements of the slaughter process if they are explained, put in context, and not sprung on people unprepared and out of context.

Other speakers presented a different, much more numbers-oriented vision of transparency. Dr. Kim Stackhouse presented a research group she’s been working with, the Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit which is attempting to quantify “sustainability.” Though many have tried to do that in the past by focusing on the measurable facet of greenhouse gas emissions—she brought up the now-infamous “Livestock’s Long Shadow” study by the United Nations— she and her team are trying to look at many more elements.

Part of the project includes predictive equations that can be used to anticipate what sort of ecological impact certain breeds of cattle, management practices, feed types, and numerous other elements could have. And in the interest of transparency, information on and about the research group and their projects are available online at pswmru.

Other presenters offered copious numbers and data in their discussion of transparency and its value. Dr. Dee Griffin, veterinarian specializing in feedlot production management and professor with the University of Nebraska, went into great detail regarding his use of antibiotics on the feedlot, his vision of the proper place of antibiotics in the beef world, and addressed some of the popular consumer concerns regarding antibiotic use in food animals.

Griffin gave insight into the mindset of the veterinarian when it comes to use of antibiotics. He shared with attendees his personal selection process when problems do come down to the use of antibiotics: efficacy and avoiding the risk of “training” bacteria to be resistant to his tools. The selection of which antibiotics are necessary to do the job well, do it once, and kill the infection the first time, is prime in his sights.

“Bugs learn how to fight. When I get in a fight with a bacteria, I’m there to win one time. I can’t miss. When I pick up an antibiotic, I pick it up to win.”

In this vein, Griffin brought his argument of transparency directly to the audience, what he as a feedlot veterinarian does with antibiotics, why, and what he does to protect his animal patients and the human world against antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Also on the topic of antibiotics, since their use in food animals has become such a hot-button issue with consumers, Dr. John Scanga of Elanco Animal Health shared information on the primary pharmaceutical product types used in the beef industry and some general information on how they work. He summed up the vast array of products into two categories: those things that keep the animals alive and those things that help them produce more efficiently. On several occasions, he fielded audience questions regarding the need for non-therapeutic pharmaceutical, repeatedly explaining their value lies in increased efficiency rather than necessity. Like Griffin, Scanga’s treatment of transparency was shared directly with the attendees by explaining the processes by which pharmaceutical products operate and the means by which they are developed.

Speaking producer to producer, or industry player to producer, or consumer adviser to producer, or industry player to consumer, the presenters shared their vision of transparency, what it means, and how it can benefit both the industry and the consumers. The strategies and intended audiences of the speakers varied, but the message was clear in all of them; increased transparency is valuable and the beef world should strive for greater transparency in all it does in as many ways as it can.

On the lighter side of the conference, lunch was a wonderfully interactive experience demonstrating the wide variety of beef. In what amounted to the beef version of a wine tasting, six different types of beef were presented to attendees in the blind taste test.

Wet- and dry-aged Choice went head to head against grass-fed beef from Uruguay, Certified Angus Beef, conventional Prime, and even “American-style kobe” from waygu cattle.

Though on the surface it might have been interpreted as an example of how every style of beef has a place on the consumer plate, in practice, it was just plain tasty. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor