During the Canadian Beef Industry Conference (CBIC), I was asked to do an interview on CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener on the use of growth hormone implants in the beef industry. The impetus for the interview followed a retailer panel discussion on “Beef Demand” — a pillar of the National Beef Strategy — focused on “what consumers want.” One of the statements made was around the use of products, particularly hormones, and that the industry will need to step up and give the consumers what they want.
Based on the consumer research one company had done, their representative was sure the consumer wants beef with no added hormones.
It’s unclear if the marketing research asked consumers why they felt that way or what most influenced or helped shape their opinions — yet understanding this piece is key when considering the question: do consumers actually know what they want?
Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple also said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Farmers and beef producers are often accused of ignoring what consumers want, but that is not the case, as ongoing work in the industry demonstrates. As misperceptions about production practices are an unfortunate part of popular culture, it is our obligation to provide the public with the other side of the story so they can make an informed choice.
For example, if I knew nothing of growth hormone implants, and someone asked me if I was concerned that there could be increased hormones in my beef, without any context as to why or even what levels of hormones, I too may be concerned. This also highlights why some advertising or marketing campaigns attempting market differentiation can be misleading and create unfortunate consequences. If a consumer knows nothing about hormones, and now they see an ad with “beef with no added hormones,” automatically they will think that hormones must be bad, and that all other beef without this label is also bad.
So, what do we do? As an industry, we have a standing offer to share research and science with food companies, restaurants, and marketing and advertising firms to ensure production practices are understood. That may not happen as often as we’d like, but it is our duty to explain to consumers why we use certain products, the positive and negative aspects about those products, so that consumers can make an informed choice. Simply changing our practices overnight to follow one attribute because “market research” shows a portion of consumers are concerned is a dangerous precedent to set.
If beef producers stopped using growth hormones tomorrow, we would need more feed, land and water to produce enough beef to meet the market demands, which would also result in more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This would also increase the cost of beef to all consumers, at a time when retail beef prices are already quite high. Will a consumer who is already financially constrained continue to buy a higher-priced beef product, or will they switch out of beef? We can’t forget how important affordability is to many of our consumers.
Furthermore, there is the global ethical question. Technologies like hormones mean we can produce more beef using fewer resources, with no detrimental effects on either the animal or human health. Why would we, as a society, decide to restrict food production, when there are one billion people starving on the planet?
Unfortunately, when we debate the merits of using something like hormone implants, despite proving the benefits, we are still often perceived as only being concerned with profit. That is why we need to have several strategies in how we communicate. Being open, honest and objective will be very important. Highlighting that we do not want to produce food that is unhealthy or even has the chance of being unhealthy, and showing people how hormones work will go a long way. And yes, we do still need to acknowledge that we do need to be financially viable, or we will simply not raise beef at all.
Ultimately, we want as many people as we can to feel good about eating beef. We can be and will be able to have conversations about growth hormones with consumers, and many consumers will understand and trust why these products are important and can have benefits to our environment and overall production system, and be perfectly fine with any Canadian beef product. However, there will still be some who will just feel better knowing that there were no extra interventions, even if they know the benefits.
The kicker is that some people feel good about eating beef with no added hormones. They choose it over another competing protein, and they also feel okay about paying a bit more for it. That is also good for the industry. We just need to be cognizant that we don’t undermine other production methods, which produce equally nutritious, healthy, tasty and safe beef.
We are very lucky to have choice in Canada, and we can accommodate many market segments that place different values on attributes. We just need to make sure that the choices consumers make are for the right reasons using all the information available.
Tom Lynch-Staunton is the Issues Manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association