Consumption rose | Consumers chose Canadian versus imported beef during crisis
In the first dark weeks after BSE was discovered in Alberta, a miracle occurred.
Rather than rejecting beef, Canadians rallied in support of the cattle industry, turning out in force for barbecues and community rallies and visiting the grocery meat counter to stock up.
Ironically, consumers found imported meat in the stores even as cattle producers were limited to the domestic market.
“We became aware of the fact that there was a lot of imported beef on our shelves, and producers would ask at their supermarket, ‘where does this meat come from,’” said Agnes Jackson, who ranches near Kamloops and was president of the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association.
She and others started a letter writing campaign to newspapers to explain what was happening and the need to sell Canadian beef in stores. The association considered developing a branded program, but then Overwaitea Foods approached it with a plan to sell beef from B.C.
The Western Family beef brand was created and continues to this day.
Stores featured life sized posters of B.C. ranching families to promote beef, and many producers made personal appearances to talk with consumers.
“One of the most outstanding things to me, in spite of the horrible consequences it has had on our industry, the Canadian public stood behind our industry. They wanted to help. That is why the Overwaitea program was so successful,” Jackson said.
Studies have shown Canadians trust farmers, which can go a long way in a food crisis, said consumer researcher Ellen Goddard of the University of Alberta. She and her colleagues conducted extensive research on beef consumption patterns, risk perceptions, animal traceability and other consumer assessments related to BSE.
People bought more beef in the first few months of the BSE crisis, but some of the motivation may have been related to price. There was plenty of ground meat around selling at bargain prices.
“People will always buy more when it is cheap,” said Goddard.
But not every household considered beef safe.
Researchers used Nielsen Home Scan Data, in which 10,000 Canadian households collect data on purchases over time, to look at risk perception and purchasing patterns before, during and after BSE.
About three to four percent of people rejected beef outright and did not come back.
“Other households didn’t change their beef purchases one iota,” she said.
“It was as if BSE never happened to them. Some households reduced it for a little while and then went back.”
Heightened consumer awareness continues because BSE animals were found occasionally until two years ago.
Media coverage was important at the time. The internet was not used as widely in 2003, but if there was a similar situation today, social media would drive wide and diverse opinions about food safety at incredible speed.
Younger people might also react differently today because food safety scares seem to occur more often, Goddard said.
“If something like BSE hits in 2023, I don’t think we can predict how people will behave based on past history because by then the population of Canada will be entirely different,” she said.
BSE forced more record keeping and improved traceability. Goddard’s research has found people want and expect more traceability.
It now goes only as far as the slaughter plant when it should go all the way to the grocery store.
“I think we are missing an opportunity here to secure the Canadian consumers’ confidence in the system because they want it,” she said.
Producers were anxious about the added cost of measures used to control BSE such as removing and destroying specified risk materials to keep infection out of the food supply.
However, she said this information should be given to consumers to assure them proactive steps are taken to protect the food system on a regular basis.