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Dealing With Technology Vs. Perception

beef industry technology

Our industry is realizing it must be better about identifying problematic issues and dealing proactively with them before they become PR nightmares. The examples are numerous.

First, there are the technology issues troubling our industry. We have always had a strong predilection to stand on good science, but the wide spectrum of potential threats we face today are so nuanced that all seem to require difference approaches.

For instance, lean finely textured beef (LFTB) improved food safety and lowered costs for consumers, while actually increasing revenue for the industry at the same time. Few anticipated LFTB being a problem; after all, it was a triumph of technology and a win:win situation for both industry and consumers.

Then, wham, LFTB was suddenly transformed into “pink slime,” and the value of every single head of cattle was reduced, as well as our industry’s competiveness and efficiency. In the end, the product line was so damaged perception-wise that it’s difficult to foresee it regaining acceptance.

A Closer Look: LFTB – “Too Valuable To Waste”

Another issue concerns growth promotants, which carry no health risks and improve efficiency. These products improve producer economics, reduce feed costs, increase production per animal, and create a leaner/healthier product. Environmentalists should love such products for their effectiveness in lowering the industry’s environmental impact, and the health community should applaud the responsible use of these FDA-approved products. After all, we’ve all heard the stories about the use of illegal products and unapproved protocols being used in countries where these products have been banned.

The whole beta-agonist debate is another. Europe utilized it as a non-tariff trade barrier, as a way to protect domestic industries that aren’t competitive with the U.S. The result has been almost a global public relations campaign against sound science.

Here in the U.S., opportunistic marketers saw a similar opportunity, and the natural/organic market has taken the lead in playing off the concerns created by the international community. Today, the science is still clear cut, and perhaps even more so because the earlier studies indicating potential problems have been refuted and found to be false. Yet, consumer perception continues to move in the other direction.

The bottom line is that this technology could be lost. The great irony would be that it was never about the science, but rather trade barriers and marketing schemes. That, however, doesn’t make the issue any less real.

Then there are antibiotics, an issue that is even more complicated. The truth is that antibiotic resistance is growing and it’s a real problem. The use of antibiotics has often been misstated and misinterpreted by opponents of animal agriculture, but not entirely. No one would recommend the elimination of antibiotics, but the political winds are such that we will see a reduction in availability of certain compounds and more restrictive guidelines in use.

A Closer Look: The Future Use Of Antibiotics Will Be More Limited

The challenge here is to get involved in public policy, not only to counter the rampant misinformation from opponents, but also with the acknowledgement that the course has been set. Changes are going to occur, but how do we make sure that the changes are appropriate and, if not totally sound scientifically, at least reasonable from our perspective?

Other issues, such as the environment, endangered species, open space, etc., are more complicated and dynamic. Increasingly, we’re finding that traditional enemies may be allies and vice versa. Who would have thought a few years ago that we would be working today with groups like the Sierra Club to ensure open space and reasonable protection of species?

The biggest hit came from traditional ally

Meanwhile, who would have dared think that our industry’s traditional allies would end up posing the greatest threat? As an industry, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact that the greatest frontal attack ever successfully launched against this industry was implemented not by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) or Greenpeace, or even a media-generated public hysteria. It was our by our traditional allies and fellow agriculturists within the corn industry.

The corn industry’s goal wasn’t to reduce the size of our industry by 10% or more, even though that’s been the result. Plus, many of us are diversified operators; thus, while the cattle industry was permanently altered, the benefits of ethanol subsidies may have exceeded the costs for some.

Perhaps it’s because we have historically been allies, and that we still are a major customer of the corn industry. Whatever the reason, the most damaging external event with the longest-lasting impact has happened with little more than a whimper from our industry. Ranchers should have been staging cattle drives on Pennsylvania Avenue to counter the most damaging public policy ever directed at our industry. Yet, for whatever reason, we failed to mobilize.

Sadly, the policy is now so engrained that it will likely never be reversed; perhaps the wisest thing is to focus on adjusting to the new realities. But it also makes sense to dissect how such a bad policy – one that will forever make our industry smaller and less competitive – was enacted. This is a battle we lost, and the corn lobby did their job in transferring fortunes from consumers and the cattle industry to their industry.

Our recourse is to adjust and find the new balance, and we are well on our way. Cow numbers and cow-calf operators have declined; feedlots are being mothballed; production is moving to areas that have better access to distillers byproducts; and packing plants are closing. The industry will shrink, but it will once again find equilibrium.

Yes, our industry lost the battle over ethanol; we were overwhelmed and outmaneuvered politically. Ironically, we should have had consumers, environmentalists and energy companies on our side. Most of them did eventually align against the policy (consumers and environmentalists belatedly so), but none face losing what we have lost.

Perhaps no one wants to admit failure, but our industry has had little discussion or self-reflection about how we can prevent a recurrence of something similar. The billions being transferred annually out of this industry are now permanent. Assigning blame is probably pointless, but analyzing how we ultimately were unable to do anything but watch as 10% or more of our industry was eliminated by a pen stroke might be worth more than a passing conversation.

Another failure or two of this magnitude in the public debate, and we’ll need to consult with the sheep industry for direction as how to proceed.

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