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How clean is our protein engine?

Woody breast has the poultry industry in a flap. Today, 50 per cent of the American broilers for slaughter suffer from the dense, dry tissue in the most expensive part of the bird. References to woody breast portray an industry in surprise and confusion. Hardly.

The move toward single-trait selection for huge breasts on birds has been an affliction. Coupled with hot diets, this created a situation where the birds’ feet are not the only thing dragging in the barn. Industry is scrambling to find a technology to fix this problem.

And therein lies the fiction. Finding a form of tenderization is like putting new feet on cattle with laminitis, extra spigots on a sow or ovaries in an infertile cow. Or, like adding a filter to the end of a muffler and calling it emission control. It does not work because it does not address the problem.

There are a multitude of events and outcomes, errors and arrogance that contributes to reputation risk. Every time an industry assumes single-trait selection won’t cause a problem or acidosis will not be counterproductive or that sows will be happy in crates it puts that sector’s reputation and the reputation of all food producers at risk. And we cannot hide.

To fully appreciate reputation risk we can take the Volkswagen emission control case as an example. It would be easy to do the appropriate — investigate, fix, fire and compensate. The difficulty lies in controlling or mitigating the reputation risk. Consider this; Volkswagen is second in the world behind Toyota for vehicle production and sales. Their car lines include Bentley, Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, Skoda and SEAT. They manufacture these cars along with motorcycles, trucks and other wheeled vehicles in 100 plants in 27 countries. Owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, The State of Lower Saxony, Capital Group Companies and Porsche Automobil Holdings SE they had a net profit in 2014 of $10.8 billion euros. In addition they have been regarded as the higher end of middle-class cars for folks. Every year over 10 million diesel cars are sold under the Volkswagen banner.

As they bought a Bosch software system that is used by others, including Mercedes Benz, it is not in the cards to blame that technology. According to Bosch that software was “not pre-programmed to cheat.” That means that someone had to order the directive from within. Meanwhile, VW stocks are collapsing and the board has decided to redirect consumer attention to electric cars. The upside of this is that finally nearly 200 years after electric cars were developed, we might actually see them on the road. But that is not the issue here. The issue is that the consumer was cheated as VW focused on a single trait — sales.

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Further investigation reveals that this is not the first time VW has been in the hot seat. In 2009 there was a criminal probe and in 2015 it was revealed that the board spent 24 months trying to hide research on a keyless ignition security flaw. One can safely assume that there is a culture imbedded within the board and upper management that is reflected in their actions and decisions. And this is the worst of all reputation risks. The fact that the software was redesigned to cheat and at a level of 35-40 per cent is a poor decision but the response that the board is hoping to redirect interest to ease the fallout is unacceptable.

Now that Volkswagen has lost its new CEO due to conflict with the board, we can assume that the board and upper management culture has dominated common sense. Volkswagen has just named an integrity officer and it is shocking that a company of this size did not have checks and balances in place. What is there to learn here? What are the things we need to address today to avoid reputation risk tomorrow?

An environmental business scan would reveal that some of the pieces of the whole may need tweaking. Just like woody breast in foul, tough cuts in beef or housing in pigs may all be issues that the consumer sees in an unfavourable light. In the beef industry we tend to look inwardly because we have the Porsche of proteins. But it is Porsche who is getting hammered right now with share devaluation. How can we work as an industry with other proteins to ensure consumer safety and confidence while safeguarding production? Are we competitors or partners?

Are not all proteins guilty of productive, reproductive and skeletal deficiencies? Are not all proteins struggling with quality on the whole carcass and an increasing need by the consumer for transparent animal welfare practices? Safeguarding reputation is not putting your competing protein out to dry — it is working in collaboration to produce and create a product that the consumer has confidence in and has the data and culture to support it into the future.

I think that many of our young farmers get this because they interact at a very high level. We need to ensure they are part of the development of the protein industry as we move forward. Quality is becoming the issue and most certainly brand recognition has proven this. From woody breast and tough end meats and all other concerns in between the problem is the solution. For today we have to ask ourselves how clean is our engine running and foster a culture to mitigate all future reputation risk.

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