Scholar explores how Canadian beef received

The Beef Cattle Research Council’s extension co-ordinator uses a Nuffield scholarship to study international perceptions

Ellen Crane won’t soon forget the sights and smells she experienced inside a massive public market in Hong Kong last year.

The extension co-ordinator for the Beef Cattle Research Council was on a 12-country journey for study as a Nuffield scholar.

“It was 35 C without humidity factored in and walking into this building and just seeing all this red meat being sold in the open air and without any refrigeration — that was a cultural shock to a Canadian kid’s system who’s never seen something like that. That was a good moment.”

Crane’s project was to learn about international customers’ attitudes toward beef production and determine what changes could be made in Canada to better fit into those markets.

“It was a pretty broad topic looking back on it, but I felt that it would cast a wider net, so I’d be able to learn something from the travels,” she said.

Crane was one of the four recipients for the 2018 Canadian Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship. Each year, Nuffield Canada awards multiple $15,000 scholarships to enhance leadership capacity for those focused on making a positive difference in Canadian agriculture.

Raised on a cattle operation on Prince Edward Island, Crane earned her master’s degree in animal science at Dalhousie University and graduated from the Cattlemen’s Young Leadership Program.

She completed her international study and compiled her learnings in a report titled Opportunities for Canadian Beef in International Markets, which is available at the Nuffield Canada website.

The scholarship allowed her to explore consumer marketing and production practices of meat in several countries and compare them to Canada’s beef system.

Based on Canadian trade deals and consumer targets, she visited the Netherlands, Scotland, England, Denmark, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, United States and Canada.

Crane said she had two objectives:

  • Learn what consumers in the various countries value in beef production and see what they are buying.
  • Learn how consumer values are reflected in each country’s beef production.

Crane went first to European markets, which she said provide an opportunity for Canadian beef.

“I wanted to learn more about what the international consumer was willing to pay. I wanted to learn more about what was already available in the stores, what the consumers in each of these markets saw as value, what was currently available to them and what they were buying,” she said.

“I’m wanting to delve into how their products or practices were really different than what we had in Canada. They’re similar in some ways, but they’re different in other ways and that’s kind of reflected in their marketing.”

European emphasis on buying local and on food source verification soon became apparent.

“They were able to do a lot more with their traceability, and those regulations can be traced back to the farmgate where the farmer has to do a lot more effort in order to be able to sell into certain markets,” she said.

Crane found a general lack of information about Canadian beef in the stores she visited and among the people she met, particularly with production practices.

“In terms of speaking to people that were working in retail or processors there was some understanding but not a great deal of understanding,” she said.

“What was interesting was that for producers in some of these countries, they really saw Canadian beef being part of a large-scale production system compared to what they do. In Europe for example, they wouldn’t see feedlot operations that were 5,000 head. It’s not factory farming but that would almost be what they would consider it,” she said.

Recently butchered red meat is sold in a Hong Kong wet market. | Photo supplied by Ellen Crane

The producer and consumer perception of Canadian beef in Asian countries is also different.

“There was more of a kind of a feel-good-story of what Canada is. Not so much about what our production is, but more of that ideal vision of what we’re trying to get across through Canadian beef marketing,” she said.

In the end, Crane said the reasons for buying Canadian beef are as diverse as consumers themselves.

There were common themes for consumer desires when purchasing Canadian beef in various countries:

  • Price — The price needs to reflect product value.
  • Food safety — This is a primary concern regardless of what the customer is buying.
  • Quality — If the product is going to be labelled with a premium price, quality needs to match that price.
  • Provenance — If a story is used to describe how the product was produced, it needs to be verifiable.
  • Presentation and labelling — Product must indicate quality and value.

“Agriculture, and especially the beef sector, is used as a scapegoat as a large contributor of greenhouse gas emissions and in general destruction of the environment,” she said.

The good news is that Canada continues to improve systems and organizations like the Verified Beef Production Plus, the Business Information Exchange and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

“A lot of money has also been invested to improve the feed efficiency, reduce emissions and improve the feedstuffs for beef cattle in Canada,” she said.

Beef producers in Canada and abroad share similar complaints about lack of available carcass data on finished animals.

“Without receiving any indication that your work in genetics, feeding and marketing are making a difference, how are you going to change your production methods to improve? The infrastructure exists in this country to make this happen and I think that we should see an improvement in the quality and the perception of our product if this link is made,” she said.

Crane has several recommendations for Canadian beef in an international market:

  • Encourage beef producers to keep on-farm records and ensure best management practices are used.
  • Implement full traceability.
  • Increase producer education, including production feedback on carcass data.
  • Consider what consumers are saying and learn their values.
  • Work to increase the number of cow-calf and feedlots that produce beef for existing Canadian verification systems.
  • Enhance product labelling for local and international markets to improve the message of sustainability.

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