Leaving the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) annual convention last week, two things were clear: We are going to have a significant amount of U.S. labeled beef on grocery shelves, and we are going to have a go at rewriting the beef checkoff.
The former became clear to this reporter during a discussion with Ken Bull, head buyer at Cargill. He said his company would devote a northern plant to mixed Canada and U.S. origin cattle and a southern plant to Mexican and U.S. cattle.
Asked why not just continue to label almost everything as possibly a product of all three countries as he and his competitors have been doing, he said, "We don't think it's in the spirit of the law….we think they have the votes (in Congress)” to remove any leniency USDA chooses to provide.
In the same vein, Chandler Keyes of JBS told us, "COOL is the law of the land. We think it's time to move on.”
So we are about to have something of a U.S. "brand.” It will include Certified Angus Beef cattle and it will include canners, cutters, Holstein cows and rawboned, no-roll, one testicled bull/steers fresh from 3-year-careers in weed control on hobby farms. I'm not sure what our unique selling point will be, but I am sure that if we're to have a brand, we need a marketing program to support it.
Which brings us back to the checkoff. Both the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB)and NCBA voted to promote changes in the checkoff program. What they want—what about anybody must agree they need—is to increase the per-head fee.
They know the chances of that passing a new referendum without major changes is remote, despite the fact that their surveys show, in general, widespread support for the program. "In general” supporters don't vote as reliably as energized members of opposition groups, and without a rewrite of the checkoff act, there would be plenty of those.
So they suggest several changes, and the CBB goes so far as to say they now believe checkoff funds could be used to support a U.S. brand. Assuming, at least, it is an official brand.
I hope somebody has given that a lot more forethought than I've seen evidenced. Again, this "brand” of beef will include every grade and quality of beef this diverse industry produces. Had we had it identified the last few years, this "brand” would have been at the root of every e. coli scare the government has traced and one of the two BSE scares. It includes 95% of the beef in the mix and it will probably produce 95% or more of the bad headlines and 95% or more of the bad (as well as the great, of course!) eating experiences.
The packers and grocers will have little if any incentive to push the product harder than the Canadian or Mexican beef they're buying at, presumably, discounted prices.
The post-harvest segments fought COOL, and the beef industry made no friends among them in pushing the program down their throats. The value of a COOL program—providing the rudiments of a trace back program that will allow regulators and consumers to more quickly isolate and segregate the source of problems—can be considerable, long term.
It will take more than country of origin labeling to realize that value, however. COOL will provide the nucleus for that system one day—and I suspect a lot of COOL supporters, when ordered by their buyers to provide enough information to allow total traceback will set up a howl that will dwarf the noise they're already making about the National Animal Identification System.
What's important now is for somebody to get busy organizing a "brand” the checkoff can promote. Maybe it's just "buy USA” but it must be there to help educate people and get them looking for that label. And, while we're at it, get the minority of people who care about the source of their beef—the Lou Dobbs fanatics—to begin demanding their the restaurants they frequent to begin sourcing U.S. beef.
There's not much demand for that now. But there has never really been a way for cafes—even those advertising "All American Beef” to really know where their beef began its life. There is now going to be a world of that product available if Ken Bull and Chandler Keyes are right. They might as well get pressured to buy it.
As McDonalds has proved time after time, it only takes a bit of consumer pressure to make food service folks think they're up against tectonic shift. Hey, it's the law of the land. Good law, bad law--we may as well squeeze what we can out of this thing.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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