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Marketing is walking the talk: Can the beef industry do it?

Beef sustainability is a catchword. It’s talked about in seminars, at producer meetings, and at major industry gatherings where planning and strategy essay a future for an industry that bounces between really good and really bad. Are we making headway, or just adding to public lectures because people either don’t understand what it takes to put beef steak on the table, or because it’s fashionable to talk about matters like antimicrobial resistance and animal welfare?

Beef sustainability is a short, pithy instructive saying, widely accepted on its own merits by those who muddle in strategic planning. Yet, it’s a term that draws blank looks from a majority of beef producers and associated members of the industry like veterinarians, auction market owners and processing crews in feedlots. I offer this, not in criticism. The words “sustainable” and “sustain” are shibboleths, double-barrelled words that denote old ideas and opinions, often old fashioned and untrue. The word “sustainable” says little about growth and innovation. Progress is not about brushing a fresh coat of paint on the status quo with new language, imagery, and spin. Success requires tough decisions (Mark Holmgren, Bissell Centre CEO, strategist and writer).

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The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) founded in February 2012 was thought to be the long-awaited catalyst for advancement in beef production (me included). Important players in the business of beef dissected and discussed key issues destined to influence the future of our industry. Finally, there is a broad range of stakeholders from all sectors intent on finding answers to questions gripping an industry in the constant turmoil between highs and lows.

David Brooks, New York Times’ columnist in his article “Learning From Mistakes” said, “History is infinitely complex. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice. So it’s really hard to give simple sound-bite answers about past mistakes. It’s only useful to ask, what wisdom have you learned from your misjudgments that will help you going forward?”

Experienced players like JBS, Cargill, McDonald’s, Walmart, major pharmaceutical companies and others brought those accustomed to developing strategy and pursuing outcomes to the game, a powerful council of intellect ready to tackle the future. But cracks developed.

Walmart, that accounts for 25 per cent of the U.S. food business, significantly influences supplier practices. Walmart’s recent push on animal welfare was called a game changer. Guidelines issued by the company asked meat producers, egg suppliers, and others to use antibiotics only for disease prevention or treatment, not to fatten animals, which, in its view, is a common industry practice. Guidelines produced by Walmart goaded suppliers to stop using pig gestation crates and housing that doesn’t give animals enough space. On the beef side, suppliers were asked to avoid painful procedures like dehorning or castration without proper painkillers. Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice-president of Walmart’s sustainability division, said Walmart wants suppliers to produce annual reports on antibiotic use and animal welfare then post them on company websites. It’s also pressuring suppliers to report animal abuse and take disciplinary action.

Some have criticized Walmart for not going far enough. Activists want Walmart to add teeth to new initiatives by making recommendations and guidelines, supplier requirements, and set aggressive deadlines for implementation. Without it the game changer becomes a spoof.

The North American livestock industry still remains at odds with some of corporate America’s recommendations as being unreasonable and financially unworkable.

McDonald’s committed to a goal of purchasing verified sustainable beef by 2016. In its words, “The process sounds simple, but it’s actually a major challenge because there isn’t a universal definition of sustainable beef.”

Tyson, one of the nation’s largest meat producers, plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017 yet no clear options exist for preventing coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis, serious welfare issues in their own right. Tyson also encourages hog farmers to focus on the quality and quantity of the space for sows when they remodel or build new barns, although Tyson hasn’t established strict time frames for producers to follow and hasn’t addressed the issue of devastating “pandemic-like” disease situations in the swine industry when people try to raise 750,000 to 800,000 swine within a single operation. Realistically, is it possible to deal with diseases like PRRS, corona virus (PED), or circovirus (PMWS) when single operations house 3,000 to 5,000 sows within their barns?

Paul Krugman, New York Times, in an article “Seriously Bad Ideas,” reminds us that bad ideas have remarkable staying power. No matter how often and how badly predictions based on bad ideas are proved wrong, they keep coming back and retain the power to warp policy. The rise of BSE in Great Britain and its spillover to Canada with a devastating and ongoing financial burden — now more than a decade old — is an example.

The Global Roundtable of Sustainable Beef established big-ticket agenda items. Topics like biodiversity, preparing for change, energy, and water management were on the agenda. Yet five years later, we are mired in an energy crisis; widespread drought consumes huge tracts of land that once grew food; and huge food safety challenges have disrupted large sectors of the beef industry. Rather than talk about big-ticket agenda items and progressive change our industry struggles with topics like antimicrobial resistance, prudent use of antibiotics and welfare of farm animals. Issues in this industry are complex and not amenable to “quick fixes.” The interconnected nature of what we do makes functional communication networks a critical feature of success.

“Strategic Planning is like a ritual rain dance; it has no effect on the weather that follows, yet those engaged believe it does. Much of the advice and instruction related to planning is directed at improving the dance, not the weather” (J. Brian Quinn of Dartmouth).

About the author

Columnist

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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