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Some Advice For The Meat Industry

The real battle is for the hearts and minds of John Q. and Jill E. Public. And so far the industry has ended up with a black eye.

If beef producers were to give advice to industry officials, what might they say?

January is meeting month for agricultural producers, when industry officials and other experts offer advice on ways to increase profitability through improved production practices and more attention to marketing. Having attended a number of such meetings, we wondered what it would be like if the tables were turned and farmers were the ones offering advice.

We suspect that beef producers probably would begin by reviewing their predicament. The remaining beef producers have faced decades of decline in consumption. Projected U. S. domestic per capita beef consumption in 2010 is estimated to be 60.1 retail pounds – down 37 per cent from the 1976 peak of 94.4 pounds.

The export situation is not that great either. For the decade prior to the BSE events in the mid-2000s, beef exports expanded rapidly, growing to over five times the export volume of the late 1980s. Nonetheless, the U. S. remained a net importer of beef. In 2010 beef exports are expected be about 80 per cent of their pre-BSE level, and the U. S. is expected to import 25 pounds of beef for every 16 pounds exported.

Clearly, at this point, livestock producers could forcefully remind their industry counterparts of the importance of cultivating evermore-positive relationships with domestic and export customers.

Then, after that preamble is delivered, we suspect some livestock ranchers and farmers would get to the “meat” of their advice, especially to those representing the portions of the livestock industry beyond the farm gate. It might read something like:

ATTACK THE CRITICS?

Industry spokespeople’s response to these issues has been to attack the critics and then provide answers that make some in the industry feel better but do little to assuage consumer concerns.

In responding to the issues that have been raised, industry representatives suggest that the critics have one agenda in mind: the destruction of the meat industry. Undoubtedly some critics feel that eating meat is an immoral act and would welcome the end of meat production. On the other hand, we would venture to say that most who express concern about these issues maintain meat as an important part of their diet.

Industry leaders should keep in mind that while it is easy to view this as a dispute between meat producers and those who would like to see the meat industry disappear, an “us” and “them” battle of that sort is likely to be counterproductive. The real battle is for the hearts and minds of John Q. and Jill E. Public. And so far the industry has ended up with a black eye.

John and Jill are told by industry officials that science says that small animal crates and cages are not cruel. But the Publics see photos and film in which veal, sows, and

laying hens have little to no room to manoeuvre. As Urban Lehner of DTN asks: Are they going to believe industry or “their own eyes?”

MEAT INSPECTION OR RECORD INSPECTION?

The Publics hear and see stories about children and adults dying from E. coli 0157:H7 and other foodborne illnesses. They are told by industry officials that the meat is USDA inspected, but then learn that what is inspected are slaughtering and processing plants’ records, not the meat itself. In the minds of the Publics, “USDA Inspected” brings to mind the hands-on inspection processes of the past, not the inspection of HACCP records.

In addition, John and Jill learn that recalls are voluntary and plants are in charge of developing meat safety protocols for their plants, not the USDA. They also read stories that some slaughter plants will not sell meat to processors who test their product for E. coli. John and Jill are surprised and perplexed.

Stories of industry representatives arguing that the testing of whole beef cuts for E. coli at slaughter plants is not warranted make little sense when they also read that slaughter plants are virtually the only possible “original” source of contamination.

John and Jill hear the same industry organization say that needle-tenderized meat is as safe as non-tenderized meat even though food scientists report that the tenderizing needles can introduce surface contaminants into the interior of the cut of meat, including E. coli 0157:H7.

When it comes to antibiotics, the Publics learn that some species of healthy meat animals are routinely given antibiotics even though their children suffering from colds and the flu are refused these same antibiotics because of antibiotic-resistance concerns.

In sum, much of what the Publics hear is contrary to their long-held beliefs about the meat industry: USDA inspections, “overuse” of antibiotics, and, most of all, that the consumer is always right, whether she wants to know which country produced the meat she buys or that imported beef be tested for BSE.

Some livestock producers might close with a plea to industry spokespeople to take better care so as not to further erode or impede the demand for their products.

In the long run, it may be better to admit that certain adjustments need to be made and go about facilitating those adjustments, rather than to evade issues or construct defences that sound unbelievable.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute

of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the director of

UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). www.agpolicy.org.His column is written with

the research and assistance of Harwood D. Schaffer.

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