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SPIRITED VIEW – for Oct. 4, 2010

After a summer of staying relatively close to home, I rolled into a week that was hectic with a capital H. It was a week of meetings that started with consultations in Edmonton with Alberta Agriculture staff, then switched to menu planning with chefs in Whistler, followed by distribution and food-manufacturer planning in Vancouver and ended with trade planning with exporters and packers in Calgary. Needless to say the nights were short, the pace was fast and the perspectives relating to agriculture and the beef industry often varied and polarized.

Monday started with a full day of presentations from Alberta Agriculture staff that were responsible for laying the framework for the next round of Growing Forward. This past April, I was asked if I would co-chair the Agriculture Competiveness Initiative with former agriculture minister George Groeneveld. The initiative is focused on identifying the factors and barriers that are restricting the competitiveness of Alberta’s grain and oilseed industry. The meetings were to see if there was any overlap relating to the conclusions we made after the meetings with other industry stakeholders. Aside from the ideas we had previously heard, there were also comments that were new, comments that I felt were skewed since they offered little in the way of balance from the people who would be affected by the outcomes of these ideas should they ever be implemented. Two themes in particular come to mind, food safety and traceability.

The main gist of the discussion was that food safety and traceability in Canada and in Alberta needed to be elevated to an even higher level since Canada was not keeping pace with its neighbours to the south.

I believe that to create your own destiny in business you need to be an innovator, and at least an early adopter of technology and innovation. This said it is also necessary to pay the bills and at a minimum add to your bottom line, not take away from it. So when asked to comment I said that I am all for food safety and traceability, provided the customer pays for it and that it doesn’t come off the primary producer’s bottom line, which is already at a bare minimum to say the least.

After six years of selling a branded-beef program I have found that consumers can be hypocrites. They want the bells and whistles but are often not willing to pay for it. Food safety in this country at the federal level is already at a very high level, and needless to say it’s not cheap. Adding even more stringent requirements will cost the industry even more and, I believe, take away from the bottom line rather than add to it. The argument that was made was that other countries have higher levels of food safety, which I am sure may be true. But there are also those country’s that have lower levels of food safety and they are competitors of ours both as exporters and importers of beef products.

Over the next two days I had a chance to reflect on the perspectives of the end users of our product in the foodservice and distribution sectors. Their concerns are consistency, commitment to supply and price. Yes, they want innovative products. But they know there is a limit to what people will pay. Food safety and traceability are important but no one wanted to know about the specifisteer that went into my beef products. They are interested in unique selling points; something that could use to differentiate their brand and their products in the market, at a reasonable price.

Finally the last two days of the week were spent at the annual general meeting of the Canada Beef Export Federation. This is traditionally a time when the members review the successes, failures and challenges of the previous year and set out new tactics, target levels and a budget for the coming year. It was two days of presentations from industry stakeholders and meat experts trying to find the next most logical step in order to improve the beef trade and raise returns.

Needless to say regulatory burden was identified as the number-one issue holding the members back from capitalizing on market opportunities. The other issues weighing on the trade ranged from bans on bone-in beef to over 30 months of age restrictions on trade, to how documents and health certificates were worded.

CBEF members include packers, exporters and producers and during the round table discussions it was interesting to see the variance in their perspectives. They more or less reinforced that old saying that you should not form conclusions about someone until you have walked in their shoes. It was also apparent that many of the challenges that the beef industry faces could be blamed somewhat on the lack of consensus among the stakeholders, which in turn allows regulatory government agencies to lose focus and draw conclusions that drift us off course. In my mind this is a major issue for our industry!

Looking back over this hectic week there was a lot to think about but many times it was clearly demonstrated that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. We need to work as one, to get on the same page, in order to properly engage those that can side track the issues that are important to all of us. End users are still price driven, forgetting that this will make it tougher for all of us to remain competitive in domestic and global markets.

Dr.ChristophWeder

Dr.ChristophE.WederisapurebredAngusbreederinthe PeaceregionofAlbertaandalsorunsSVRRanchConsulting. HeisalsoafoundingmemberofPrairieHeritageBeefProducers Foradditionalinfocheckout www.spiritviewranch.com.

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