Most cattle producers can’t accurately describe what a beta-agonist  is or does, but they can attest to the fact that they work at increasing efficiency  and pounds – and at a rate simply short of amazing. With that said, the issue of beta-agonists, as well as hormones, isn’t a simple one as there also are consumer perception  issues, trade issues, and quality concerns as well, associated with their use.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the industry have been diligently working on this subject for quite some time, with special task forces and working groups formed and deliberating. In fact, some of those efforts will be discussed in detail at next week’s mid-summer conference in Denver.
From an industry standpoint, there’s been a lot of discussion about perceptions vs. reality  regarding these products. There’s also been a growing realization within the cattle industry that perception often trumps reality when it comes to consumer acceptance and its economic ramifications for the industry. Of course, a recent, and the most classic, example is last summer’s debacle over lean finely textured beef .
We’re operating in a different type of world today, one where issues are often created, and where competing scientific views are given equal weight regardless of their validity. The whole hormone issue has really never been about the science. It began as a trade barrier by Europe in its quest to protect its domestic cattle industry from the threat of imports. Even Europe’s own scientific body  found no justification for the position on growth promotants, and the World Trade Organization upheld a U.S. complaint on the issue. Nonetheless, from there, the issue has blossomed into a worldwide public relations nightmare.
One of the fastest-growing segments of our business has been natural product lines, and it’s no coincidence that JBS announced this week the launch of a website promoting its premium Cedar RiverFarms® Natural Beef Program . It’s almost ironic that most of the larger feedyards have almost divided their production between natural cattle and those undergoing a more aggressive approach.
If you’re curious about the potential magnitude of this issue, you don’t have to go any farther than this article you’re reading. As I write this, I’m consciously trying to not write anything potentially usable against the industry by anti-beef activists. While I know the benefits and the science of these technologies, I’m also aware that the misconceptions and perceptions  out there make this a difficult issue to discuss.
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I am so far removed from the typical consumer that I’m not someone who could speak accurately about how consumers may perceive something. However, I know that if I feel the need to write cautiously, that should raise a red flag in my mind.
In today’s environment, the question has shifted; it isn’t so much about the science and reality as it is about the potential risk and whether consumers  and the media can be effectively educated prior to the development of a public relations nightmare. It can also be justifiably argued that making decisions based on the opposition’s ability to distort public perceptions is a very dangerous precedent.
The industry should be commended for being proactive and attempting to address potential problems before they surface. For instance, according to some experts, NCBA’s previously prepared response to BSE  saved the industry billions of dollars. It is a careful balancing act, however, to adequately educate and prepare for such issues, without elevating the issue in the minds of consumers.
This is one of those issues where gathering the facts and coming up with answers isn’t necessarily difficult. The challenge is trying to figure out how to use the facts and implement a strategy that serves the industry well in both the short and long term, and accepting that the right answer may or may not align with the facts.
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