Dialogue with consumers a part of modern beef industry

These are high times in the cattle business. Cattle and beef prices are good, feed prices have dropped and barbecue season bolsters consumer demand for red meat.


Additionally, international markets for Canadian beef are slowly reopening or expanding and demand in developing countries is expected to grow.


It should be a time for great optimism in the industry, and indeed it is for some. But results from recent cattle industry studies show unease. 


It’s no surprise that not every link in so long a chain is satisfied with the amount of sizzle on the steak. Often when one link is profitable, others are not. In a healthy industry, though, every sector gets its turn and success in one translates into success overall.


An overarching theme in the cattle industry studies and their accompanying analysis is the need for better communication between sectors. 


Cow-calf and breeding stock producers say they want information from packers about carcass quality and yield. 


Retailers say they want more information from producers about sustainability and animal welfare. 


Consumers say they want smaller cuts of meat but cattle finishers, paid by weight, say they have no incentive to provide them. 


There are more examples of course, and none of them are new. 


What is relatively new, however, is the expanding role consumers are playing in the shape and future of the industry. 


Food companies believe the people buying burgers want to know the product is safe and has been produced with attention to animal welfare and the environment. Oh yes, and they’d also like it to be cheap.


Dr. Allan Preston, a veterinarian, Manitoba cattle producer and study participant, said recently that the cattle industry has been somewhat arrogant in the past about its product. 


“Our beef’s the best in the world, so line up and pay the price and away you go,” is how he described the prevailing attitude. 


“Unfortunately that’s not the way the world works anymore. The people who are paying the price also want to have a little bit of the say in how it’s produced,” Preston added.


McDonald’s is the latest food company to recognize this. Last week it confirmed plans to pilot sales of “sustainable beef,” first in Canada and potentially worldwide.


That key phrase is in quotation marks because the exact description of the product and what it will entail for the Canadian cattle industry has yet to be determined.


McDonald’s, and A&W before it, want to differentiate their product in a competitive market by giving consumers what they want, or what they think they want. And McDonald’s, at least, had the foresight to involve the industry well in advance of its plans for 2016 marketing. 


Many in the cattle business balk at taking direction from food companies, and by extension consumers, who generally have no idea how beef gets from pasture to plate. 


However, it is becoming ever more apparent that those who buy beef at the meat counter want to know more about how it got there.


As recent studies have indicated, cow-calf producers, feedlot operators, packers and retailers all want better communication too. They can’t legitimately fault consumers for wanting the same thing.


Better times in the cattle business are also better times to make improvements, and those are now underway. Attention to consumer wants and needs will have to be part of them.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.