Steps to enhance consumer confidence begin at calving
As professionals involved in the beef industry, we are all familiar with beef quality assurance and its importance in building consumer confidence and beef demand. Beef Quality Assurance practices were developed in the early to mid 1980’s to address specific concerns in the industry associated with the proper use of antibiotics as well as injection sites and their impact on meat quality. Beef quality assurance continues to be a great example of a ground level effort within every segment of the beef industry recognizing a problem and essentially fixing the problem on their own, without government intervention. The results of this success story continue today. By continuing to remember that we are producing a high quality food, the industry has continued to keep antibiotic residues near zero, while over 98 percent of carcasses are free of injection site blemishes.
But as calving season approaches, it is important to recognize that consumer expectations continue to change, and beef industry production practices and level of quality assurance must change in order for beef to remain competitive and in the “center of the plate” for consumers.
We are constantly reminded of how consumer expectations continue to evolve. As the generations shift from baby boomers to generation X and generation Y, the consumers’ personal experiences and direct ties to production agriculture grow exponentially smaller. Yet at the same time, disposable income and our nation’s wealth continues to increase, and consumers now have the financial luxury of making purchasing decisions based not only on price, but on their own perceptions of product wholesomeness. A very important question facing the beef industry today is how does beef remain not only competitive, but the protein source of choice, as consumer expectations change?
Part of the answer has been to provide a variety of products in an attempt to meet a wide variety of consumer preferences. Organic, natural, source- and age-verified, and direct marketing are all examples of providing unique products to meet specific demands. Beef Quality Assurance has also continued to evolve to address specific questions being asked by consumers. In addition to guidelines for antibiotic use and route of administration, BQA has expanded its efforts to address additional topics.
In addition to the fed beef and market cow audits that continue to help the industry track product quality and develop industry-wide goals, BQA has also addressed newly emerging retail marketing requests and consumer demands. New BQA focuses include developing beef industry-wide guidelines for proper cattle handling, resources and information on safe and efficient cattle handling facilities, guidelines for proper transportation practices, sale barn audits addressing employee safety as well as proper livestock handling, feedlot assessment tools, and youth livestock quality assurance educational tools, to name a few.
Beef quality assurance programs continue to be important and effective in large part because they are state driven and producer supported. Individual state coordinators work hard to address quality assurance topics important and perhaps unique to each state. A list of each state’s BQA coordinators can be found at http://www.bqa.org.
To me, the issue that is most critical to the long-term viability and sustainability of the beef industry is recognizing and responding to consumer issues to maintain and build beef demand, while also trying to balance these demands with what is economically and environmentally sustainable at the ranch level. As we all know, this is NOT an easy task. Traceability, “cow comfort” and environmental trade-offs all come at a high price. As with any relationship, showing an effort to meet consumer demands and expectations will have long-term positive benefits. Beef Quality Assurance is no longer just “where we give the shots, and how much we give,” it’s a larger, industry-wide effort to show consumers that we are proud of our product and we stand behind it. Dramatically reducing beef injection-site issues were an early success story for the beef industry. It was a straightforward problem that had a relatively simple solution with measurable results.
The easy problems and simple solutions in the industry have probably already been addressed. More complex problems such as transportation and handling, humane harvest, and the balance between traditional, cultural ranching practices and consumer perception are all on the doorstep, waiting to be addressed. Addressing these topics in a positive, cooperative manner will be important to the long-term health of the beef industry. Although we, as producers, would like a steady-state industry where supply and demand are balanced and stable, a stable industry could also be considered a stagnant one. Addressing change and growing demand are important components of a healthy industry.
Change isn’t always bad, although it may be a little painful at times.