Editorial: Getting the beef industry to communicate

Some of us used to think that the grain business was rife with too much politics, but as you learn more about the beef cattle business you start to wonder if it’s even worse.

The debate over the wheat board consumed many gallons of ink in these pages over the years, not to mention the gallons of other beverages consumed during heated discussions. But the board debate was out in the open. You may or may not like the result, but at least the issue was resolved.

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When issues simmer below the surface, they are never resolved. That’s the distinct impression one gets about the Canadian beef cattle business, where there are many players and many interests.

Each province has an organization, each mostly representing cow-calf producers. There can also be feeder organizations in the same province. You have breed organizations, each representing the easiest-calving, fastest-gaining breed which produces the leanest (but well-marbled and tenderest) beef.

You have the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association trying to represent everybody. It’s based in Alberta, where the politics have become even more interesting since the provincial government formed the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, which has a big war chest to fund research and marketing efforts.

Then there’s Canada Beef Inc., a recent amalgamation of the former domestic and export promotion agencies with the national checkoff and research agency. But Canada Beef doesn’t sell beef — it can only try to convince customers to buy it. That must mostly be from one of the two giant packers that dominate the business, and which operate on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. That makes one wonder how enthusiastic they can be over a differentiated Canadian beef branding program.

Formation of Canada Beef Inc. was a rare example of co-operation in the beef industry, but apparently a lot of blood was spilled on the floor during that process, and it seems there are still simmering resentments.

Reading between the lines of the piece by “straw men” on the opposite page, it appears that there is an effort to get the simmering issues out in the open and dealt with to get the Canadian beef industry on track.

Which is sorely needed. Last year, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) issued a report on the state of the Canadian beef industry, and it was not pretty. Essentially what is happening is that we are sending the Americans cattle and they are shipping us high-end beef. In 2002 our net trade balance with the U.S. was $1.4 billion. In 2011 it had dropped to $42 million. In other words, Canada has almost become a net importer of beef.

It’s clear that Canada has some work to do, and the urgency became even more apparent recently. As reported in this issue, the USDA has announced a program to label beef with guaranteed tenderness. Will that mean even more U.S. beef coming across the border into the high-end “white tablecloth” market?

Notably, the first participant in the program is Cargill, one of the two big packers in Canada. Maybe we can thank the U.S. country-of-origin labelling (COOL) program for sparing us the ignominious prospect of having “USDA Tender” labels stuck on packages of Canadian beef.

Of course, such programs mean little to the producers if they don’t get a piece of the action. Why go to the trouble of producing more tender beef if you don’t get paid for it?

Whatever the attribute — tenderness, grass fed, environmental certification — on the face of it Canada should be in a better position than the U.S. to provide it. It already has the basics of a traceability system through a national identification program, which has been resisted in the U.S. As reported in this issue, improvements are being made to BIXS, which allows producers to track their animal’s performance through to slaughter.

So at least some of the mechanics are in place. The challenge seems to get the various parts of the industry talking to each other. The “straw men” process seems to promise an opportunity for cow-calf producers to have their say, particularly those outside Alberta, where the feedlot industry sometimes seems to have more than its fair share of influence. Indeed, that’s one of the questions that needs to be addressed. Beef got another black eye last week when a feedlot growth promotant was pulled from the market on suspicion that it causes lameness. If there is to be a Canadian beef brand, how much of it should be based on feeding grass rather than grain?

That’s just one of many issues to be addressed. Let’s hope this process gets them out into the open.

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