Our March 24, 2016 issue marks the second in a series of Special Reports prepared by reporters from the Glacier FarmMedia network, which includes the Manitoba Co-operator. In these articles, reporters explore the implications of the yet-to-be- ratified Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union.
Marketing beef into Europe is not for the faint of heart, say producers who have run that gauntlet.
Cliff Drever is the former president of Prairie Heritage Beef, which marketed high-end beef to the European market from several Prairie cattle operations.
In the early stages, the Camrose cattle producer was surprised at how Canadian production is viewed.
“Canada is not well known at all for beef in Europe. It was kind of surprising to us, but they don’t think of us as beef producers,” said Drever.
“They think of us as maple syrup, and that’s about it. We have a pretty high opinion of ourselves actually, and you get humbled a little. You’re up against U.S. and Australian product. But they do appreciate the quality of our product, so if you send them a high-quality product, they’re very interested.”
Jason Hagel, a cattle producer from Three Hills, Alta., was part of the same group, and continues to provide beef to One Earth Farms, which bought Prairie Heritage in 2014.
Hagel said the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union is encouraging, but niche marketing to higher-end users is likely to remain the key.
“I don’t think we want to flog a bunch of beef over there because it takes so much to get it there,” Hagel said about the EU protocols that dictate how meat for that market must be raised and verified.
European buyers value quality, and describing the production of high-quality beef became a key to sales.
“We had a story behind us,” Hagel said.
“We took care of our animals and explained how we did that, and I think the biggest thing is the story, not just the beef. We could put a face to the beef and explain how we raised it, and did animal husbandry and whatnot, so that’s what they really liked too.”
“We started out thinking we would market Canadian beef, but we ended up marketing Heritage Angus. They like a story to go with it. They know about ranchers and the Wild West over there, so that’s kind of the image they have,” he said.
“We had a lot of the chefs from Europe come over here. If we could get them to come over, we pretty much had the deal sewn up. They simply fell in love with the country, the story, the quality of the product… That’s really important to them.”
His advice to those planning to target Europe once CETA reduces tariff barriers is to cultivate relationships and aim high.
“Europe’s a special place,” he said.
“If you just want to sell beef, you’re better off in traditional markets. Europe is the high end of the high end. It’s a good market and there’s loyal buyers over there too, but you have to be prepared to do everything right.”
Dennis McNight of the Innovators is a marketer, researcher and tour organizer who helps individuals and companies explore food export markets.
He believes Europe will be more of a niche market for Canadian beef even after CETA is ratified.
“We’ve got to stop trying to convince the whole world to eat beef and appreciate that it is maybe a niche market,” McNight said.
“And what’s wrong with a niche market? Because you then provide higher-quality meat to the market that consumers pay more for, but it’s a better-quality product when they have it. That’s a market I think we can play in.”
McNight acknowledged the burgeoning consumer demand for protein, though that is less of a factor in Europe than it is for Asia. However, he also sees that demand being fulfilled through plant protein rather than meat.
“There are niche markets all over the world for beef, absolutely, but it’s a niche market, in my view,” he said.
“If you look at where the whole world is going, they’re not going in the same direction as the beef industry. I don’t know anyone who’s eating more beef. If anything, we’re eating less.
“Those who really study world markets will tell you the real protein battle, the bare-knuckle fist fight that’s going to happen out there, will be between fish and chicken.”