Home from Europe all bulled up

August 24, 2008 07:00 PM

Steve Cornett

We should all be more bullish about the future of beef.

Did you know I could not find a single Prime beef restaurant in Paris or London? Can you conceive of how much growth potential there is for good eating beef in such a place? Paris is the eating capital of the world. And not a good steak in the place. Que pitié!*

Not to speak for you, but I have a tendency to get a bit down when I read the headlines. You've got the animal rights people and the vegetarian people whacking at us all the time. Anytime there is a food safety scare our product takes a hit. Per capita consumption in the U.S. has been moving down most of my adult life, and I've had a lot of adult life.

But that is just the U.S. A mere 300 million already sated people out of a population of 7 billion, mostly underfed, humans in this world. Pfft.  We are d'importance mineure; Mere vairons en mer des poisons.*
There are more and more people in a world where more people mean less land available for agriculture. New technology and more porous borders are making more of them wealthy and allowing them to move higher in the food chain. They will quickly want more meat, and eventually that will mean more beef.

We're once again gaining access to more of those people, and as Japan and Korea pick up steam, our beef sales are once again climbing fast. Beef exports the first half of this year were 30% larger than last year and returned 39% more dollars to the U.S. industry.
We're still not, admittedly, growing nearly as fast as pork. The BSE thing has been a huge problem for the beef industry. If beef exports had grown as much between 2003 and 2007 as pork exports did—almost doubling—we would be selling more than $6 billion per year worth of beef into export markets—something over $200 per head of harvested fed beef per year.

Instead, we're still struggling to regain market share.

The BSE problem has robbed us of that. But that problem, I think, is receding into the background. Have you noticed how little press the latest Canadian BSE cases have generated? Have you heard that, despite all the protests and headlines in Korea, sales of U.S. beef there are brisk?

After a couple of weeks in London and Paris—places where our BSE challenge is de peu de consequence* compared to their own.

I come home convinced that the European Union is a plum ripe for the U.S. beef industry's plucking. This is hardly new information from me. The U.S. Meat Export Federation projects that beef exports to the continent will more than double in the next five years.

The Europeans eat 8 million tons of beef a year. It's what Americans would consider sorry stuff, almost all of it. They typically hide that fact by serving it like we do chicken and possum—with some sort of sauce or other flavor added. But you and I know just how good good beef can be without that catsup stuff, don't we?

I don't have a lot of hope for the U. K. My theory is those folks' taste buds have atrophied. British cuisine, if that isn't some sort of oxymoron, could be—and has been—described as "bland.” Or "watery.”

One evening, I did an etymology search on all the cooking words I could think of—sauce, sauté, roast, grill, and such— in hopes of finding one with an English derivation. None came to me, with the exceptions of "oatmeal” and "grits.” Those that apply to something pleasing to the palate—including "palate” itself--all trace back to French, Italian, Spanish or one of the other Romance countries.

That indicates to me that we English come from a long line of people not adept at the culinary arts. Preordained to invent TV dinners. One veteran traveler tells me he thinks that British food is like the Russian winter—adequate protection against successful invasion.

But you get into France, oh la la!* They like their foods. They like their butters and their sweets and their wines and they love the feel of fat on the tongue.  Why there is no American style, high-end steak house in the city of Paris is beyond me. That country has more foreigners wandering around than a Texas packing plant, for goodness' sake.

Judging by the prices the shops hit us with, the foreigners must be well heeled or on expense accounts. The hotel restaurant where we stayed charged us more for hamburgers than a Chicago Morton's would for the 8 oz. filet if they served one.

I can't think of anywhere else I've seen a Mercedes dealer sited in among the dress and souvenir shops, obviously set up to sell cars to whim shoppers on a tourist street. (But I'm not sure I've been anywhere with as many Arabic folks, either.) I mean, there is plenty of money to pay whatever it costs to get Prime U.S. beef over there.

My French is a little rouillé*  so the only way I could hunt for a steak house was on the Iinternet. I tried the Web sites of all the steak chains I could think of, Del Frisco's, Morton's, Ruth's Chris, and no luck. There are locations on other continents, but nothing in Europe.

I don't know why. I haven't been home long enough to find out. I have calls in to all of them and will report in my www.beeftoday.com blog when I do find out.

Among those I found at the office Friday was Angelo Fili at the Greater Omaha Packing Company, a company that has about as much experience selling into Europe as any in the modern economy.

By "modern” I mean since the hormone embargoes of the 80's. We have, as you probably know, been trying to get the EU to accept our beef since then, and within the last few years have made some headway in getting them to relax rules enough to allow the few U.S. producers willing to clear enough hurdles to meet the requirements. Which isn't many, but enough to allow slow growth in European exports.

Angelo Fili said until recently the biggest impediment to stronger European sales had been that lack of supply. As the dollar weakened, he said, demand has improved. Having visited the Continent and sampled the local biftek,* he shares the opinion that there is a lot of potential demand for U.S.-type product.

And he's not just some mostly retired magazine editor, mind you. He knows what he's talking about. He says there is plenty of product now to keep some prime beef restaurants going in Europe.

Anyhow, I don't plan to drop this. I'm going to wait until somebody else who knows something about the topic gets back to the office. I can't imagine why there is no Morton's in Paris.

* This reporter speaks no French, but believes he would sound more authoritative if he did. For any translation corrections please contact http://babelfish.yahoo.com/translate_txt.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.


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