More Help with Beef’s Image Problem
Oct 31, 2011
Merck had its Zilmax team in Texas last week, and I spent a day with them. We visited the West Texas A&M University’s impressive meats lab program and a couple of feedyards that are 100 percenters on the Zilmax product.
I’m not here to talk about feed additives, mind you. I don’t do production stories anymore. It’s not that I’ve ever had much doubt about Zilmax efficacy, anyhow. (For a quick overview , I’d suggest a visit with Jason Cleere at: http://animalscience.tamu.edu/images/pdf/beef/beef-zilmax.pdf)
The WTAMU crew, under Ty Lawrence, has done a lot of the carcass work on the product. The university, by dint of being situated within a couple hours drive of more than 30% of the country’s fed cattle, has done a lot of carcass work for a lot of companies, including the major packers. Lawrence had a couple of fed Holstein carcasses hanging so we—a handful of beef reporters—could see the difference in Zilmax steers compared to control cattle.
At Dawn Cattle Feeders, we heard manager David Bauman tell us he felt the product added “just about a $20 bill” to every head; same sort of story from Ben Fort at Quien Sabe feeders near Happy. At Dawn, almost all the cattle are heifers and all are marketed on the grid to Tyson. Happy is 100% Holstein steers (maybe 110% to judge by a long look across the yard) and, again, relies on Tyson’s grid. The Merck folks admit their product works best in such railer situations because it adds more carcass weight than live weight.
That’s fine. I’m all for making more meat cheaply. The more value we can add to each animal, the better the deal for everybody concerned, from cowman to consumer. My concern is that we always be sure we’re adding value and not just pounds. And Zilmax does have that marbling and toughness thing, even though Merck and Ty assure me it’s not enough to drastically impact palatability (it stays within that “range of acceptability” score) and affects grading only at the margins, it makes me nervous when we adopt technologies that trade pounds for taste.
Don’t get me wrong. I trust Ty and Merck when they assure me that the loss of quality grade is modest and, on the grid, offset by the increase in the size of high value muscles. But it gets me to the point of what I sat down to write about which is: the late arrival of agribusiness at agriculture’s public relations challenge.
Among those on the tour was Carrie Thomas, whom Merck brought onto a “food chain affairs” group to help packers and retailers accept their new technology.
Packers were, bless their famously soft hearts, concerned enough about palatability of Zilmax-impacted products to demand more research before they agreed to take the cattle. JBS has only recently signed on. Cargill and National are still not on board, I guess. No offense to Zilmax, but that attitude pleases me no end. Not long ago, when packers were offered more yield with lower palatability they hardly hesitated.
But this time they did. And so Merck (and not Merck alone) had to start thinking of itself as a food company with “food chain affairs.” This is very, very good for cattle agriculture. During much of my life, cattle people thought of themselves as cattle producers and it wasn’t until, I’d say the 1980s, that the industry ethic began to change to make us think of our cattle as food products.
You’ll recall that, not long ago one of meat cutters’ biggest complaints was buckshot. (The food quality folks called it “buckshot”, though my guess and I’m not admitting any personal experience by saying it, is that it was really the less dangerous and more affordable birdshot.) People were, so the theory goes, actually using live ammo to herd cattle. Shooting them right in the beefsteak. That’s “hurry up cowboy” stuff; that’s not how food producers think.
And I don’t even want to get into what used to happen with various illegal substances rumored to cure illnesses or increase weights.
Near as I can tell, we have changed. I credit the leadership of guys like Gary Smith (at Texas A&M at the time), the NCBA and the checkoff program—especially the carcass lesion work led by NCBA’s Gary Cowman and the Beef Quality Assurance Program—with helping change our attitude. They did for our "food product" mindset what Temple Grandin is doing for our "animal welfare" mindset.
But we’ve been doing it with too little help from our suppliers. I’m convinced that properly screened and properly-used growth promotants, antibiotics, pesticides, larvicides and all the other cides are good for producers and consumers.
But they’re even better for patent holders, and for too long these companies spent their promotion programs selling their wares to us and seemingly ignoring the buildup of consumer distrust and resentment on the other end of our market chain.
They seem to think of themselves as being in the technology industry; the implant business; the pharmaceutical business; the seed business. Well, time to think again. They’re in the food business, too, and if you don’t believe it go read what folks think about technology at places like Mother Jones or Marion Nestle.
Most “food activists” like farmers, and they like ranchers. Most like beef. But they are convinced that modern technology is ruining our product. Technology is helping us produce beef (and just about every other commodity) cheaper and better and, for that matter, more safely and with less environmental damage. But growing numbers of consumers don’t trust us because they don’t trust our technology.
And they don’t trust technology, I assert, because manufacturers have not given them reason to, those soft light ads on the Sunday morning talk shows notwithstanding. The anti-corporate mindset evident in the "Occupy" movement applies to food and food products. In many minds, beef is being “tainted” by its association with “the man” and his products.
So thanks, Merck, for paying attention to a part of that problem. And let’s be hopeful that Merck and other such companies will see the value of adding their names and dollars to efforts like those at the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, whose list of “industry partners” is not exactly tome-like.
I’m not sure the USFRA is the big answer to all this, but it’s a start. Well, not a start. I’m more partial to the efforts of the Sustainable Beef Resource Center, but my wife’s company is involved with them, so as a journalist I can’t recommend them for fear of a conflict of interest. (But I’m a retired dude, so I guess I just did.)
If you take some of that research from the SBRC and then use the USFRA’s idea of a sort of online “peoples’ megaphone” to amplify it, you’ve got the start of something that might help agriculture help consumers to adjust to the future.
Anyhow, judging by consumer attitudes about technology, we’re late to the game. But at least it seems more companies are beginning to realize that they can’t sell their stuff to us if we can’t sell our stuff to consumers.