The first tentative steps in a shy courtship among those who produce, sell and eat beef has emerged in a year-long process known as the Strawman Initiative.
Led by Kim McConnell of AdFarm in Calgary and southern Albertan beef producers John Kolk and David Andrews, the concept is an industry-wide invitation to share information among all sectors to give consumers a high-quality product and encourage them to buy Canadian beef.
Industry members agreed during meetings in Toronto and Calgary that they must learn to trust each other, share information and speak with one voice on critical issues.
A plan of attack with 10 major points was released at the meetings.
“The world of beef is changing and it is changing big time,” said McConnell at the Nov. 25 meeting in Calgary, which 180 people attended.
This change is influenced by a shrinking supply of available cattle, shifting consumer demands and new initiatives such as a free trade agreement with the European Union and retailers and restaurants seeking beef produced to their specifications.
The controversy over A & W deciding to sell antibiotic, hormone free beef might not have blindsided the industry earlier this fall if better relationships had been established with food service and retailers. Information would have been available to the company to connect it with those are producing those kinds of cattle rather than forcing it to turn to Australia and the United States, said McConnell.
Following a beef summit last year, industry leaders formed four committees to strategize about developing a single path for the industry that leads to a profitable, world class food business.
“This is an industry that prides itself on making decisions based on no information,” said committee member Jennifer Stewart-Smith of Beefbooster Inc.
Andrews said producers often buy breeding stock based on good looks, while fat cattle are sold on a system of averages.
“Sourcing cattle on information gives the industry more opportunities to realize the profit potential of the cattle,” he said.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s Beef Information Exchange system (BIXs) could be used as a central database to collect information from the ranch to the processor.
Information on at least two million calves would be required to make it useful. However, it was agreed producers need incentives to enter data because they will not likely use the system without the promise of a payoff.
Retailers should also provide more information. They do not have to release proprietary data, but discussions about consumer trends would be useful to confirm whether buyers are getting what they want.
To gauge opinions, the meetings used electronic voting on a series of questions about how to improve information flow, measure successes and assess whether there is support to find money for organizations such as Canada Beef Inc., the industry’s promotional arm.
Canada Beef Inc. has a promotional role, but it is underfunded with most of its money coming from a national $1 levy per animal sold.
The electronic vote showed that industry representatives at the meeting want packers to pay a levy to Canada Beef. The national checkoff should also increase, but the vote was split on how much it should rise.
More than 80 percent of the group wanted more information flow, but less than 70 percent agreed BIXs is the way to go. Most preferred a voluntary program to collect data rather than a mandatory requirement.
No one wants another commodity organization, but a council of beef leaders was proposed to act as a facilitator. Such a council would not have decision-making powers.
A final report is expected by the end of the year. For more information, visit www.strawmanbeef.ca.