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Beef — naturally

Beef — naturally

A chart on the slide laid it out in colour. Food sales in “natural” and “organic” products were not a niche or a fad — they were a well-established trend.

Deep in a city boardroom shared with the major food industries, it became clear to me that what we assume of our urban and global customers may have been slightly underestimated. These producers and agri-food giants were very clear that the customer of the day demanded a natural product with full transparency, freshness and versatility.

A little research found that most associations are aware of the well-documented consumer shift to a more natural product but in the same article will call it a “fad” or “niche.” That tells me the depth of the market may not be fully understood. More than a decade ago a few of us in the business worried over consumer issues and talked about the shift from the practice of the day to a more natural product. We knew it had to be but at the same time it was an expensive conversion for industry — one that takes pure economic advantages and trashes them for buyer need. Could we do it?

The question is no longer if the conversion will need to take place but when it will be dictated. We only have to look at the mandates that were demanded in other industries, such as poultry and eggs to know that beef is on the hook.The success of natural programs cannot be ignored. “A customer is a customer, no matter where they are,” (AgriSuccess May/June) is a mantra to the global context of food. How we handle this broadening of scope as an industry will determine our future.

Beef is a wonderful protein that has the distinct advantage of tasting terrific. Consumer studies show us that taste is still the major driver for beef buys and tenderness the handicap. That is why middle cuts continue to sell — although in smaller portions. In Canada we enjoy state of the art of feeding and processing and are leaders in cooked meat, especially hamburger. In fact the Cardinal Meat Specialists plants in Brampton and Spruce Grove are so advanced they are unrivalled anywhere else in North America. We do have competitive advantages.

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This may all sound repetitive until we fan the pages on the future. When we look ahead there is a resounding new theme — transparency. We hear the need from scientists such as Temple Grandin, from consumer groups and young technically savvy farmers. We tend to have a knowledge gap with transparency in the processing side. This, according to Brent Cator, needs to change. In an interview with, Cator was firm: the biggest trend will be in transparency. The change will come to slaughter and processing. The technologies will be diverse so they can be “combined, layered and have multiple advantages.”

Operational diversity is the key. We know in an industry, diversity brings experiences and ideas to the table. A diverse collective intelligence that runs a farm, factory, plant, industry or home is open to innovation and creativity. In nature, for example, biodiversity is the secret to balance and the higher the diversity — the greater the resistance and stronger the resilience.

A study by NPD Group recently stated that “young, ethnically diverse buyers are tomorrow’s meat buyers,” so we know that we are facing diversity at every juncture and on the marketing side all the time. How that crosses over into production for cattlemen is another story and how that product is prepared is another layer to implement.

Slaughter is an unfashionable necessity and further processing even more removed from our acceptable consciousness. If Cator is on the mark then the question becomes: how do we increase transparency in the ugly end of business? Animal welfare is first and as we move down the line, the aspects of value adding need to have a higher than regulatory standard with ample creative technologies that ensure a fresher product. Add a dash of full transparency and it sounds easy enough until economics dictate that this must be done at a reasonable cost.

Is the problem the solution? If natural is in then that can be solved with education and research for producers, cattle feeders and processors. If customers want a more convenient natural protein experience or a more flavourful one, then that can be solved with technology. If buyers want a fresher product then that can be solved with airplanes. And if full transparency is at the top of the list — then data systems can be developed to support it. The recipe for success may include the Cloud, robotics, improved transportation infrastructure, creative design, science, diverse teams from outside of industry, self-driven regulations that exceed baselines and embracing the knowledge that the world has changed yet again.

Remember the days before rotational grazing, electronic auctions sales, conveyor restraint pre slaughter, hydraulic chutes and gates, MLV, cryovac packages, high-temperature cooking, HACCP, robotics or the round baler? Do you remember the pushback when those were introduced? We cannot go back to that time when we now can knit protein fibres and sequence the bovine genome.

Science and technology have saved lives, made our world safer, improved performance for our animals and given us the tools to be better stewards. It took a diversity of thought, fearless innovation and sharing (transparency) to get to this space. As we move to the next phase, beef has the opportunity to once again be centre of plate — naturally.

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