The new world of ‘sustainable beef’

Straight talk on what it means, where welfare fits and what the future holds

Who’s driving this bus?

Amid ‘grocery wars,’ Jamie Oliver, ‘hormone free’ Walmart and a storm of related debate, this is the core question many producers and others in animal agriculture have about the new swath of expectations and ‘sustainability’ programs taking hold throughout the industry and the marketplace.

One person with a unique, up close perspective on what’s happening at what it means, at both the ranch level and the board room level, is Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, a fourth generation rancher and CEO of CL Ranches Ltd., which grazes around 28,000 acres near Jumping Pound, Alberta, just west of Calgary.

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Copithorne-Barnes grapples daily with the practical realities of today’s rising pressures on animal agriculture. As head of a prominent operation, she has also dealt directly with many of the movers and shakers behind initiatives at Sobeys, A&W, McDonald’s and others.

She also has a front-row seat to developments both nationally and internationally, through her role as chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB).

Copithorne-Barnes was a featured speaker at the 5th Annual UCVM Beef Cattle Conference in Calgary and offered a number of important observations. Here is a sampling of some of the key ones that grabbed the attention of the several hundred producers and other industry representatives in attendance.

Things not always as they seem. One of the first encounters Copithorne-Barnes had with the genesis of today’s big retailer initiatives was in July 2013 when, unbeknownst to her a marketing representative of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver posed as a member of the Sobeys meat team out for a tour of the ranch, asking questions about animal welfare and videotaping her answers.

“I thought it was a little odd that he was adamant about seeing our feedlots, even though we had emptied them out about the third week of April. He wanted to see the pens. And when we got there one of the questions he asked was ‘Why would you put all of these calves into these backgrounding pens when you have these big, beautiful open fields?’ I was beginning to get a bit suspicious of the line of questioning and I said, ‘Think of yourself being here in the middle of January when it’s 40 below, the wind is blowing and there’s a foot of snow on the ground. Where would you rather be? In these pens with the protection of the fence, clean bedding and adequate food, or out in the open field, facing that wind?”

A month later she learned the truth about the covert mission — it was part of an effort designed by Oliver’s team to evaluate beef suppliers, to help Oliver decide if he would participate with Sobeys on what has become the “Sobeys and Jamie Oliver Partnership,” a high profile marketing initiative built around the “Certified Humane” concept and other branding components.

Retailer business realities. She may not agree with all parts of the approach, but Cophithorne-Barnes says it’s hard to fault Sobeys from a purely business perspective. “How do you say this was a wrong move for Sobeys to make? Jamie Oliver has 4.5 million followers. This is a man of incredible influence. When he comes onside with a product, he brings with him who knows how many buyers and shoppers for Sobeys.” The food retail business is fiercely competitive, she says. The power to entice consumers is what drives change.

The hazards of claiming ‘Better Beef.’ The next group that came to visit was A&W, which was in early stages of considering plans for its controversial “Better Beef” campaign, which promises beef with no added hormones and steroids. “Before A&W rolled out their marketing plan, their executives actually took the time to come out and visit a number of operations. They really wanted to understand what ranching is all about, to make sure that their concept of hormone free versus antibiotic free, and other parts of their program, were in their mind valid and the right thing to do.”

Good intentions alone were not enough, she says. “The questions they asked were real, genuine, and they really tried to learn and understand. But we all know the reality of their marketing when they rolled this program out. I am no way endorsing the fact that to call this better beef was responsible. Thankfully, even they eventually started to realize the negative impact this was having at the producer level. That’s why you don’t see the words better beef in the slogan anymore.”

Ultimately, ‘business is business.’ Despite the damage caused, again it’s hard to argue the business rationale, she says. “A&W decided that the hormone free concept was something their consumers were asking for. They needed to learn how to supply it and they became the very first national hormone-free burger available to Canadians. Business is business whether we like it or not. They have to follow consumers’ dollars and this is where A&W decided to go.”

Will McDonald’s get it right? Arguably the most important retailer initiative currently on the table is the activity taking shape around McDonald’s pledge to begin purchasing ‘verified sustainable beef’ in 2016, with Canada selected as site for the company’s first “Verified Sustainable Beef Pilot Project.” Copithorne-Barnes says the inclusive and collaborative approach McDonald’s has chosen is encouraging and arguably the best among the big retailers.

“McDonald’s was in fact a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef all the way back in 2010. And they’ve really been a driving force in bringing together a multi-collaborative platform in order to ensure that sustainable beef will be defined in a way that everybody can define and accept.”

While others have taken opportunistic approaches where truth and fair representation of industry approaches appear secondary, McDonald’s multi-stakeholder process has brought a greater focus on building transparency and understanding. “You look at one of the more extreme examples, such as what Chipotle in the U.S. is doing, where it’s clear they have decided to drive consumer’s thinking for their own gain, whether there’s truth or not to how they are representing things . . . McDonald’s on the other hand wants to make sure that everyone involved in this concept has a voice at the table and they get it right.”

Even some of those less extreme than Chipotle are still causing damage, she says, and while they are benefitting short-term may lose the long game. Canadian producers have heard a lot about the importance of trust and social license. The pathway McDonald’s has headed down with its pilot project, which involves working with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, the CRSB, Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Cattle Feeders and numerous other Canadian beef cattle experts, seems the most aligned with doing things right to support those concepts, she says. This process, like CRSB and GRSB also includes a strong science basis with input from leading scientific and technical experts.

“McDonald’s seems to realize that real trust is dependent on truth and transparency, in terms of how consumers evaluate what they hear from companies and what consumers want to know about companies’ products and business practices. That is encouraging.”

An example of the result of this approach is McDonald’s position on antimicrobial use. While a growing number of other players have sought to ban antibiotics and promote ‘antibiotic’ free, McDonald’s has landed in support of the concept of ‘judicious decision making,’ which allows room for responsible use and adequate support for animal health, recognizing keys such as withdrawl times already in place.

Bruce Feinberg, Global Animal Health and Welfare Officer at McDonald’s Corporation has simply stated: “McDonald’s believes that animals deserve care and we still support the treatment of sick animals.”

Copithorne-Barnes says what producers can expect from the best approaches is criteria that is clear and science-based, addresses today’s expectations, and is not misrepresentative or unfairly restrictive to industry. “This is more likely to happen when industry is part of the decision-making team.”

Who are the real leaders? Copithorne-Barnes’ take on Walmart is an interesting one. The company’s major actions on sustainability, including most recently on antimicrobial use, have gained massive coverage and often kudos. But the significance she says has more to do with impact than true vision and leadership.

“The funny thing is, two months after McDonald’s released their vision for antimicrobial use, Walmart came up with a bland press release saying pretty much the same thing. The press called this absolutely earth shattering and a game changer, which made me laugh because they were about the last ones in the game.”

But she was still relatively happy at where Walmart landed and sees the multi-stakeholder efforts having a positive influence on the retail giant. “What I was most proud of with Walmart is that for once it was a recommendation. Walmart has a tendency to send out prescriptive edicts. ‘You will or else we won’t.’ This was the first time when it comes to a sustainability factor that Walmart has said we ‘recommend ,’ and the reality is I think a lot of that has to do with McDonalds and others making a lot of headway through the concept of collaboration.

“In this case I will give direct kudos to the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, because they were given the opportunity to speak to the Walmart sustainability consortium and explain to them what it is that industry is up to. I think this shows Walmart finally listened.”

Building on positive momentum. The path ahead may still be uphill with lots of obstacles both existing and new, says Copithorne-Barnes. “For example, I know first-hand that antimicrobials is just the first step. We will be facing more questions about Ractopamine and hormones coming up very soon once they get this antimicrobial issue settled.”

But the recent signs of progress are also encouraging and something industry can build on, she says. “If we can keep what we’re doing open and transparent, at both a national and global level, hopefully these companies such as Walmart, Unilever, Nestle, who are all walking down this path right now, will pay attention to this and we will have approaches we can live with. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of new information and ideas, but as an industry we need to be engaged and up to the challenge.”

Reaching out to and building understanding with consumers easier said than done, she acknowledges. “We need to think about how do we as an industry come together and collectively come up with an engaging way to teach these things to consumers, and in this case consumers being both our retail partners as well as the end user.

“I can tell you this: social media makes a big difference. And we are making some ground there. But we need to continually come up with new and creative ways to influence and deliver our messages. Total transparency is not the answer either, because too much information can be as detrimental as not enough if the right context isn’t there. At the big picture level, our information needs to be well organized, have context and be catchy and interesting so people pay attention. With that being said, we all have a role to play in making our voice heard . . . it’s true, we all need to get out there and tell our story.

” …One of the most productive things I’ve been able to accomplish in the past year and a half is to have people come out to the ranch so I can show them what we’re doing. It’s one thing to have a 400 page document explaining what we’re doing. It’s another if you can see it or if I can tell you in my own words. We don’t need to get complicated. Just talk about the simple things we do every day and why we do them. That can go a long way.”

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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