Oct 5, 2012

The beef industry is planning on a path of transparency. Last week, the Colorado Beef Council, along with Colorado State University, held what you might call a stakeholder symposium about animal agriculture.

In the latest Beef Quality Audit that the Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) produced, they learned that we haven’t done a good job communicating beef production methods. The audit said we need to be more transparent to our customers so they have complete confidence in beef products.

There was a good cross-section of the beef industry involved in this presentation. Many of the folks who attended this event felt that consumers need to know more about where their food comes from and that the industry is very conscientious about producing a safe, quality product while being environmentally friendly and concerned about our carbon foot print. The theme of the day was “Beef Transparency = Trust.”

The meat industry has been battling accusations that we are factory farmers, with groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States working hard to give animal agriculture a bad name. Many groups are constantly attacking animal agriculture and posting events on the internet and social media sites. For some reason, people feel that if they read something on the internet that it must be fact. The “Pink Slime” story would be a good example.

Sustainability was one of the topics discussed.

The Beef Board and state beef councils are starting to make a concerted effort to evaluate sustainability and what it means. NCBA, with beef checkoff dollars, is fully engaged with the sustainability issue and has added Dr. Kim Stackhouse Lawson to their research staff to evaluate sustainability of the beef industry. The beef industry has defined sustainability as reducing environmental impact, maintaining or improving the industry’s economic sustainability, and providing social diligence to the current and next generation. Lawson pointed out that sustainability is a difficult thing to quantify and that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

Dr. John Skanga took a look at consumer attitudes and broke them down into three groups, saying that 94 percent of consumers were price conscious shoppers. They just want to know it’s safe and healthy. He said that 5 percent of consumers were more concerned about how and where their food comes from and he described them as foodies, the buy-local crowd. Then there is the 1 percent which he describes as the activists and the folks you will never have a rational conversation with about meat production practices.

It appears that we have about 6 percent of our potential consumers that the meat industry needs to focus on who are more vocal and may have influence over the other 94 percent, who seem fairly content. The 6 percent are the ones who are causing many of our communication and image problems.

The leaders of our industry are intent on being more transparent about how we do things and, after years of playing defense, they want to take a pro-active position to improve the image of the cattle and beef industry, which was what this meeting was all about.

Even though we have a lot of science to back up the safety of many of the production practices we use, the amount of disinformation is, at times, too much to bear. Temple Grandin was another presenter and she has taken things like humane treatment of livestock head on, and takes a simple approach to many issues, saying, “If you have to defend it, don’t use it.” That sentiment was consistent to all who attended.

Aside from managing adversarial relationships with anti-meat activists, consumers also have more choices in the meat case than ever. At the end of the day, beef is beef, but when consumers are faced with a multitude of choices like organic, Certified Angus Beef, natural, grass fed, hormone free, we need to explain all those choices to consumers.

This industry has always needed a pro-active attitude toward consumers. There are a lot of good things happening in the beef industry and we do need to tell our story. I am constantly wondering what would have happened to lean finely textured beef if Beef Products Incorporated had told their story early when the product first came to the market. I bet they wouldn’t be in their current position. — PETE CROW