When you make your living in the cattle business, it’s difficult to imagine what the beef industry looks like from an outside perspective. This gap is a challenge when trying to gain a true sense of consumer perceptions of beef production.
“One of the phrases I really like is that you can’t see the label when you’re inside the jar,” said Heather Tansey, Cargill’s director of sustainability, at the annual general meeting of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). When producers are focused on a particular initiative, such as promoting sustainably raised beef, better understanding of outside perspectives can help when evaluating whether that message is reaching the consumer.
Tansey was part of a retailer panel on sustainability and consumer trends at the meeting, held September 20 in Calgary. This panel was moderated by Crystal Mackay, president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, and featured representatives from some of CRSB’s retailer members, including Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, senior manager of North American sustainability at McDonald’s Canada, Jennifer Lambert, senior manager of sustainability for Loblaws Companies Limited, and Carl Dean, vice-president of purchasing for Cactus Club Restaurants.
Given their proximity to the consumer, the retailers shared some of the feedback they receive regarding beef. This varied based on the type of retailer. With McDonald’s, customers are curious about the validity of its claims, such as that of using 100 per cent Canadian beef. Customers are more assumptive at Cactus Club, Dean noted, trusting the restaurant to source top-quality Canadian beef. Loblaws customers are interested in how food is produced and whether it’s locally sourced. “People are looking for affordable, quality, healthy food, and that’s their number one priority,” said Lambert.
Cargill recently finished a study on consumer sentiments in both Canada and the United States, which included questions on sustainability practices. “What we saw was anything that was related to no artificial flavours, hormones or antibiotics really tended to pop higher in their interest level,” said Tansey. “They cared about what happened at the farm, but we saw that there was a bit of a split when we started to dig into willingness to pay.”
When it comes to communicating with consumers, the four panelists agreed that the general public’s lack of knowledge about beef production is a major barrier to success. While the beef industry is making strides in a number of facets related to sustainability, Dean sees some of these efforts as still largely invisible to the consumer. With McDonald’s launching the first beef product to use the CRSB Certified logo, however, he anticipates this exposure will catch the attention of the public.
The startling amount of misconceptions and false information spread about the industry further complicates the fact that most consumers have little understanding of beef production. “I think the wrong folks have been telling the beef story for a long time,” said Dean. “I’ve got two nearly teenage boys, and what they know about the beef industry is the documentaries they watch on Netflix,” he continued, adding that the loudest voices belong to opponents of livestock production.
There is also the possibility of introducing too much information at once. “There is so much stuff that is happening within the roundtable,” said Dean. “I think when we bring this into the public forum and start to engage with consumers, we’ve got to be cautious that we don’t overload them with too much to think about.”
One possible example of this is the use of the second CRSB Certified logo, which signifies a mass balance chain of custody model. This logo can be used by a company that sources a minimum of 30 per cent of its volume from CRSB-certified operations. “There is so much education that the public needs to understand what that is, versus just the fact that there’s a roundtable with a sustainable focus,” he said. “Just letting the public know how (many) sustainability practices are already there is important.”
Speaking with one voice
How should the beef industry face these communication and perception challenges? According to this panel, the entire supply chain needs to speak with one voice, simplify the message and determine why consumers should believe in sustainably raised Canadian beef. “I think we really need to find what in marketing they call ‘the reason to believe,’” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, explaining that this is the reason a consumer cares about and demands sustainability. “The worst thing that could happen is beef becomes a guilty pleasure and that people will still do it but feel not great about doing it.”
Tansey noted the concept of sustainability is technical and isn’t always easy to communicate to consumers given the major role it can play in beef production. Considering the volume of information available to the public, she also believes each step of the value chain needs to be on the same page when it comes to communication. “There’s so much noise out there, and there’s so many people talking about sustainability and so many people defining what it means.”
Simplicity is key to creating a thoughtful, strategic approach, and producers can bring credibility when sharing this story with the public. “The messaging that’s going to go out there has to be kept very simple,” said Lambert. She advised using shared values to connect with consumers, keeping in mind the importance of balancing the heart and mind in creating a compelling message.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell praised the CRSB’s approach of moving towards using one set of claims and logos, though this isn’t without its challenges. “Almost every single Canadian has no connection to farming, so you are asking people who have no understanding about how their food is grown and raised to then have an understanding about how that’s done sustainably,” he said. “Aligning around common language, common vision and common ways of communicating is the best way that we’re going to start doing that.”
While the retailers confirmed the importance of transparency, the level demanded by consumers isn’t as high as producers may expect. “Most customers don’t want or need to know the exact farm location where their steak came from,” said Lambert. Rather, she explained, consumers are more concerned about being able to trust that a company is doing the right thing.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity conducted an in-depth study on transparency in 2017, and Mackay reported that what consumers want in terms of this is a lot simpler than many imagine. “They want third-party audits. They want policies, practices and a track record that you’re actually doing what you said you’re going to do,” she said. Instead of sharing all the data from a sustainability audit, consumers would usually rather just know that a third-party audit has been conducted and that this information is available if they wish to learn more. She cited an example of a retailer that invested in a barcode program to show consumers exactly where their seafood came from. “Very few people actually went to the trouble of going to see the data, but they loved that they could if they wanted to.”
The panelists also noted the importance of treating some aspects of the beef industry in a sensitive manner when communicating with the public, given their distance from these realities. “There is an ugly side to the beef industry because, spoiler alert, everybody dies in the end,” said Dean. Mackay advised not comparing animals to people, such as ‘mama cow’ or ‘baby calf,’ as using the proper terminology with consumers is a better way to deal with those sensitive realities.
Industry-wide adoption of standards needed for greater success
To really push this message and allow for sustainable beef to capture the general public, the panelists believe that sustainability standards need to be adopted by the entire industry. “What I’d love to be able to see is that sustainability is built into the Canadian beef brand and all Canadian beef production, that it’s not a separate program that a few select producers have chosen to participate in,” said Lambert. “This needs to become an industry-wide, industry-adopted standard that all Canadians can trust.”
To make this happen, those already involved with the CRSB and other programs need to share their stories with the rest of the industry to help get everyone on board. “That’s really only going to happen if people start to accept the process, start to get involved, ask some questions and then hopefully go through that certification process,” she said. “At our end of the supply chain we would love to be able to support the marketing and communications and the logos, getting products into the market, and we can only do that with volume.”
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell is hopeful that when consumers are better educated on beef production, the whole industry will benefit. He explained that he wants to see “Canadians perceive Canadian beef as their primary source of nutritious protein for themselves and their families, that they would view it as a sustainable, good-for-the-planet, good-for-themselves choice and that that would then drive demand for Canadian beef, which would drive preservation of our native grasslands, and that demand would also drive producer financial and economic viability.”