As consumers express more concern over animal welfare practices, beef producers need to tell their story to preserve their market share. “At one time, consumers had a concept about what we did,” says Kacy Atkinson, Colorado State University (CSU) livestock production Extension specialist. “They were happy to go to the store and buy the food we produce, take it home, and feed it to their families.”
The reality is that is not the world we live in anymore, she says. “We have a lot of people who have no concept of what happens on a farm or ranch. We have so many people on social media, and information spreads like wildfire. We used to get our daily news at 5:00 and 10:00 each evening, now we get news instantly. When information comes out on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it has not been a positive experience for us in the agriculture industry.”
With less than 2% of the population directly involved in production agriculture, and less than 1% making a full-time living in the business, 94% of consumers have zero connection to the agricultural industry. “They can't comprehend it or understand it, on any level,” Atkinson states.
More importantly, we are living in a world where science no longer means anything. “Opinions matter more than facts,” Atkinson says. “In agriculture, we try to fight our problems with research, facts and finding the truth. But the reality is, if we continue to come at consumers with research and facts, they will think we are lying, and we cannot be trusted or believed,” she explains.
Because of this, Atkinson feels there has never been a more important time when the beef industry needs to come together, collectively, and address these concerns. However, Atkinson says some specialized producer groups are attacking ranchers who raise beef conventionally, just to take advantage of marketing opportunities. “It is causing fragmentation in the industry, and consumers are starting to see traditional beef production as bad,” Atkinson says.
When NCBA conducted a study looking at how consumers felt about beef, 92% of consumers had animal welfare concerns and felt animals were being mistreated. However, when a core group of these respondents were given a firsthand view of every segment of beef production from the cow-calf operation, feedlot, and packing plant, that number dropped to less than 8%.
“When consumers could see for themselves what we are doing, they could see we are doing things right, and for the right reasons,” Atkinson says. “Consumers don't see a beef industry, pork industry and poultry industry. They see an agriculture industry. If one segment is doing something wrong, in their minds, the other segments are just as guilty.”
As the middle class incomes grow, consumers will become choosier about what they eat. “They are going to be more judgmental and righteous about the choices they make,” Atkinson says. “If we want to retain our market share, we are going to have to be able to answer questions about why we do certain things, and explain it in a way they can understand.”
Atkinson sees the biggest weaknesses in the beef industry as not telling our story, not being transparent and not educating consumers about what we do and why we do it. “We will have to accept that there will be practices that consumers are not ever going to accept,” she says. “But, we need to do a better job educating consumers about what influences beef quality, and be able to show them we are doing things right, and prove it.”
BQA can help
The industry has a tool to address these concerns. The Beef Quality Assurance program was first introduced as a national program to enhance consumer confidence in beef. The program is now offered at the state level, so each state can address differences in production practices.
“BQA is a great tool,” Atkinson says. “It takes a dollar to fix a problem at the source, but if we wait to address the problem at the processing and production chains, it is $10. If we wait till it reaches the consumer level, it is $100. We need to fix things at the base production level, and that is what BQA does,” she states.
However, BQA is voluntary. “Consumers know this program is voluntary, and even though 90% of producers may follow BQA practices on their operations, because they don't have their certification certificate hanging on the wall, they assume we are not using it,” she says.
Since the program is voluntary, there are no standards that companies like Walmart, Wendy’s and Subway can look at and say, these are the principles the entire industry is using. Because of that, they can't use BQA for the foundation of their own programs, she continues.
Since the industry does not have a standard, each company is developing its own. “When you sell your calves, do you know where the meat will end up?” she asks. “What will it be like, as a cow-calf producer, to have to meet these standards for every one of these companies?”
Atkinson says BQA needs to be a mandatory program. “If our industry would participate in BQA collectively, most of those companies would be happy to accept that for their programs,” she states. “If we don't step up to the plate as an industry, there will be a day when we will be regulated from the top down.”
Atkinson says regulations may be forthcoming from packing houses, which are getting heat from the food service industry. If packers start requiring BQA practices, Atkinson says, it will trickle down to all the other segments of the industry.
Gayle Smith is a freelance writer from Potter, Neb.
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