A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly
My suggestion is for Canada to stop sending generic beef to the U.S. and develop a “Proudly Produced in Canada” program
I got a disturbing phone call recently from a cow-calf operator near Edmonton, taking issue with something I wrote in my August column. He wondered how I could write that cattle feeders are “paying too much” for replacements when cow-calf operators are going out of business. I explained that the comment referred only to the U.S. market and reflected the huge equity losses suffered by U.S. cattle feeders over the past 18 months.
I also told him that it was vital that ranchers on both sides of the border get more for their calves and yearlings, so the North American industry could arrest the serious decline in its cattle numbers. The future of the industry, I told him, depends on a healthy nursery sector because the decline puts everyone else at risk, including packers. It’s also important to remember that all wealth to the beef industry in Canada and the U.S. flows from consumers. Unless they start buying beef at higher prices soon, the pressure on packers, cattle feeders and cow-calf operators will remain.
I describe his call as disturbing because he told me how folk in his area have simply given up ranching. It was a reminder that behind the decline in Alberta cattle numbers (now the smallest beef herd since 1993) are intensely personal stories of families who have had to leave the industry after ranching for generations. I don’t know how the Alberta or federal governments should best address the issue. The factors that have caused the decline amount to a perfect storm that has hit the industry since 2003. From my vantage point, the Canadian government is tackling some issues correctly. But how do you persuade South Korea to accept Canadian beef again? How do you reduce the impact of U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labelling while waiting for Canada’s complaint to wend its way through the World Trade Organization? How do you alleviate the added costs of SRM removal?
My suggestion is for Canada to stop sending generic beef to the U.S. and develop a “Proudly Produced in Canada” program involving consumer-ready products. I suggested such a program to various Canadian groups when origin labelling was first mooted in the mid-1990s. I envisioned Canadian branded beef whose labels had pictures of the Rockies to reinforce the unique and healthy nature of the product. I noted how American consumers would be attracted to such products, especially if they sold a little cheaper than U. S. beef.
Such programs still have potential. With the Canadian beef industry smaller than 10 years ago, its future lies in providing the U.S. and some export markets with high-quality branded beef that trumpets all the attributes that Canada has to offer. Consumers will be even more demanding in the future as to how their food is produced and where it comes from. The Canadian industry should stop using implants (even though they are perfectly safe) and strengthen its national cattle identification program. It could then create a “new” industry that offers the finest “natural” beef in the world that consumers can trace back to the ranch.
Such a move would require unprecedented co-operation and coordination between all sectors of the industry, with producers through to further processors all playing key roles. But the Canadian industry has an opportunity to make its beef the most sought-after in the world. I look forward to the day when I can walk into a grocery store and see Canadian beef displayed as the gourmet item in the meat case and selling at a premium, or see it highlighted on the menu of America’s finest restaurants.
Cattle Buyers Weekly covers the North American meat and livestock industry. For subscription information, contact Steve Kay at P. O. Box 2533, Petaluma, CA 94953, or at 707-765-1725, or go towww.cattlebuyersweekly.com.