Comment: Riding towards next year country

If you ride horses, you’ve probably heard the advice about looking where you’re going. It sounds pretty basic, but it’s easy to get in the habit of looking at the ground. However, if you stare at the ground too much, you may end up there. Plus, you need to set some direction for your horse.

At the same time, you (and especially your horse) have to be aware of what’s on the ground — badger holes, deadfall, rocks, tree roots. This is even more important if you’re travelling at speed.

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The beef industry finds itself in a similar conundrum this spring, as everyone tries to navigate one COVID-19 catastrophe after another at a gallop, while still trying to set some direction.

We’ve already seen how fragile our supply chain is as the virus infects workers in packing plants. And as I write this on May 20, President Trump has mused aloud about ending trade deals around importing cattle into the U.S. Canada and Mexico are the only countries exporting live cattle to the U.S., under the renegotiated North American trade deal, so I have to say I felt a little ill reading those comments. Mexico’s beef exports to the U.S. have been up, as the country’s packing plants haven’t been hit by COVID-19 so far.

R-CALF and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association were delighted with Trump’s comments. Meanwhile the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) defended trade with Mexico and Canada. NCBA asked Trump to reconsider beef imports from Brazil instead, citing foot-and-mouth disease from the South American country as a risk.

Hopefully by the time our June magazine is in your hands, we’ll have raced past Trump’s comments and will still be on our feet.

But what will the world look like on the other side of COVID-19? Marcel Blais, president of Chop Steakhouse and Bar, offered his analysis during a webinar organized by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Chop is the first full-service restaurant to use the certified sustainable logo on one of its menu items.

Unsurprisingly, Blais believes we’ll re-emerge into a recession, and anticipates his business taking 18 months to return to pre-COVID levels. He foresees customers valuing health and hygiene even more in the long-term. Trust and transparency will become more important than ever for brands.

There are also four customer trends that existed pre- COVID that Blais thinks will gain momentum. They include takeout and delivery, frictionless transactions (i.e. making it as easy as possible to buy something), buying Canadian, plus offering both healthy and vegan menu options.

If you’re wondering why a steakhouse plans to offer vegan options, keep in mind that people dine in groups.

And omnivores don’t generally want to exclude vegetarian or vegan friends or family. They are going to pick a restaurant where everyone can order what they want. Besides, as we’ve all seen, people often try out different eating regimes for a while, and then abandon them. So it’s quite possible that today’s vegan is tomorrow’s steak-lover, at least in some cases. At any rate, Chop wants to be inclusive, says Blais, and I’m sure that’s a necessity in the restaurant industry.

Before the pandemic, people were asking more and more questions about where their food was coming from, says Blais, and he sees that continuing, given recent events. He believes the industry can cement a stronger position for Canadian beef, and wants to see the Canadian Round- table for Sustainable Beef “lean in” to the “stewards of the land” archetype that cow-calf producers embody.

Bob Lowe, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president, was also on the panel. He notes that there is a short window of opportunity to show the general population the value of food production in Canada, but he wants it done without using fear as a motivator.

I have a list of animal rights organizations that I follow on Twitter, and it’s quite clear that they are trying to leverage the packing plant problems to promote veganism. I’m not sure how successful they will be in the long run, but no doubt the beef industry needs to keep working on ways to connect with customers and shift the public discourse.

As Jerry Klassen notes in his column for our June 2020 issue, this country was built on “next year.” Whether you’re planning for your own operation or as part of an industry board, now is the time to think about what you want the country to look like next year and how you’re going to get there.

About the author

Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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