Troy Marshall

February 26, 2015

6 Min Read
The beef industry carried a knife to a dietary guidelines gunfight

It’s been known for quite some time that the process of updating the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans was not about science. Like most things in Washington D.C., it is quintessentially all about politics.

The environmental, animal welfare, anti-corporate, anti-livestock, and nutrition lobbies have all coalesced around one goal. And they have co-opted – for the purpose of pushing that agenda – the war on obesity, the war on cancer, the war on diabetes, etc., as their moral high ground, with active support from the current administration.

It was a recipe for disaster, and yet we stubbornly stood our ground, relying on sound science and hundreds of years of nutritional information to hopefully carry the day for us. Predictably, as when one takes a knife to a gunfight, you’re destined to be on the losing side of the battle.

I’ve been amazed by all the quotes emanating from cattlemen in the wake of the release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee’s report that cut red meat from its recommendations to USDA. Incensed cattlemen are declaring that the Obama administration had declared war on their livelihood, but it’s akin to Ukrainians announcing they believe Russia has intentions on part of their land base.

Everyone I’ve talked to seemed to be aware of the politics of the situation, knew that the science had been rejected and political agendas were running the process; and they acknowledged that we were not at the table when that shift occurred. The bottom line is that we knew we were going to go down to defeat; the only thing in question was the extent of that defeat.

It’s not an overstatement to say that this was a devastating blow to the beef industry. While a less politically motivated administration and a more science-based process will undoubtedly bring sanity back to the process, it should never have been allowed to get this far. I know the “good” work that all of the industry people have done, and understand that the scientific community has increasingly been in our favor with the overwhelming tone of recent science being more and more advantageous to beef and meat in general.

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There’s a growing consensus and understanding that meat is not just part of a healthy diet but perhaps a vital component! Additionally, the scientific community is acknowledging that the research and past emphasis on creating bad foods and good foods has failed, and that the emphasis should be on good diets versus bad diets. The federal dietary guidelines have played a key role in shifting red meat consumption downward, but that has not resulted in a decrease in obesity, cancer, heart disease or anything else that it promised.  

I’ve taken a number of nutritional classes, but I’m certainly not an expert. Yet, even I know what I need to do. I should decrease the amount of sugar and number of sodas I consume, reduce my caloric intake and increase the amount of exercise I do. But here’s a news flash – until I have to move up a pant size, I’m going to continue to enjoy my potato chips and cola.  

We need new advocates

The industry has the wrong advocates for this fight. Yes, we need the nutritionists and scientists putting forth sound science to counter the opposition’s pseudo-science and agenda-driven claims. Yes, it’s productive to have cattle producers talking about their lifestyle, the way they take care of their animals and the land. And, yes, we need to share the sustainability message and have producers out there telling our story.

We’re busy at my place this week preparing for our annual bull sale. We’re proud of our product and are confident that our genetics will contribute to our customers’ bottom line. However, we can’t be the only ones advocating for our bulls.

Yes, we have many unaffiliated, third-party scientists verifying the data and claims from land grant universities, to the Beef Improvement Federation, to national genetic evaluation programs conducted by breed associations. We have veterinarians do our breeding soundness exams, trained technicians take our ultrasound data, and certified labs that evaluate them. We pull DNA, we ID every bull by sire and test them through certified labs for health, etc. But that isn’t enough.

We also tell our story, and we hopefully are great advocates as we believe in and understand our product. But it is our customers who have the most impact; it’s their words and testimonials that drive other customers to our sale.

On a wider industry scale, it should be no different. Ours is not a battle based solely on data; the key is getting people to understand and embrace the data. That means marketing it and presenting it in a way they trust. That means that, as an industry, we need to get our customers to speak out for our product.

We need that eastern liberal who wrote a book about the lies she had been told about fat, and what she discovered. We need those consumers waiting in line at that steakhouse in New York, the barbecue place in Atlanta, the Walmart in Los Angeles, or the chef in Chicago who consume and love our product.

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We need those people who understand that a politically based, agenda-driven process is trying to tell them that they can’t enjoy their steak, their hamburger or even their hot dog. They need to say, “Enough is enough.” 

For all of Albert Einstein’s accomplishments, he’s probably most famous for this quote – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” As an industry, we continue to fight these public relation battles with sound science and as the guys in the white cowboy hats. These approaches have their place, but we continue to lose.

We need to understand the battle we’re fighting and start to use our greatest asset – the consumers of our product. We don’t just need to utilize them to take our message forward, but we must elicit them to fight those who are attempting to eliminate our livelihood. 

If this embarrassing defeat over the dietary guidelines doesn’t start the conversation about how we’re going to get sound science and our story out there in a much more effective manner, than I don’t believe it will happen. If our industry leadership doesn’t drastically reform its strategy after this latest defeat when consumer momentum and scientific data was decidedly shifting in our favor, then perhaps it is time for new leadership.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of and the Penton Agriculture Group.


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