It’s tough to stand out in the world of commodities

Producing the best beef or grain doesn’t mean your product will be recognized for its quality

Having a point of differentiation is really important when it comes to commodities.

Let us start with the term ‘beef.’ You may have been in conversations where someone said, they don’t eat beef — they eat old dairy cows. Which is interesting because technically, those old dairy cows and the Alberta bred fancy show steer are defined as bovine meat under the regulations in which we globally trade. It is all beef.

This includes all breeds of cattle: milk breeds, water buffalo, and a host of long-eared, short-eared, old, young, grass-fed, grain-fed, hardly fed, and overfed bovines. Beef, technically, is not a perfect steer in perfect form fed a specific diet and presented in an appetizing way. In many places, it is strips of local meat hung in a wet stall without refrigeration. It might be cubed for a stew. It might be cured, smoked, chilled, frozen, or fresh. But it is all still beef.

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Shifting our perspective helps us to see the pitfalls of assumption.

One might assume that our product tastes, travels, cooks, or keeps better. But under what conditions? And by categorizing these things in our minds, we miss the bigger picture and the opportunity to see the culture that we are engaging with.

Certainly as Canadians, we do have the best proteins, grains, and pulses in the world. But commoditization takes their specific identity and quality traits away. In eggs, it can be any colour of egg from any type of the over-500 breeds of chickens. Those variables do not change the fact that an egg is an egg.

When we take the time to fully appreciate the breadth and scope of what it is we are talking about selling and to whom, it broadens our landscape. I know I have told this story before but it is worthy of repeating. In my visit to a dairy in India the woman farmer had a Holstein for milk quantity, a Simmental-cross for longevity, and a water buffalo for high fat content. The milk was mixed to present a better product which should have identified it but was dumped from her cans that had stood on the side of the road into large vats at the plant. The cows were still cows. The milk was still milk. When butchered at end of life, the cows, regardless of colour, would still be beef.

One could argue that ensuring that those around us know of the superior characteristics of our product is of value. That is certainly true when the buyer desires and can afford the product. The EU increase in purchase of Canadian beef is proof in point. Because of Canada’s safe production practices and high food standards, we can stand behind our products’ quality attributes.

Yet around the world, bovine meat is largely served in small portions. Does that reflect how you see the next client buying product? Or are we still trying to sell our version of a large grilled high-end portion?

Travelling brings the world to us and erases a lot of assumptions. Best is defined by the person standing on that ground. My best eating experience of bovine meat was a steak from South America served at an Italian restaurant in Mexico. I doubt it came from a grain-fed farm. My best pork eating experience was Kiwi fed pork from a backyard in New Zealand. You get the picture.

I use these examples to show how a bias can cloud our vision on what technically is the same thing. Often it is the point of difference, the preparation, and the presentation that changes the outcome.

When my friend started grinding ewes, I was pretty sure I would not like the taste. But the result was surprisingly delicious. The point of differentiation was the breed of sheep and the way the meat was prepared. However, if she had sold a spent ewe it would still be sold as a commodity and priced at the same level as all others.

We must remember that commodities are defined internationally and for trade purposes. Sadly, there is little technical room for product identification or specific quality attributes.

We need product specific identification. Mixing grain in large batches to be sold as one commodity is not rewarding to the producer. The tough questions are: How then do we position our Canadian products on the wide variety of global plates? And how does a high-end product feed into the global vision of access to food for all persons? Can we do both with the amount of volume and the current systems in Canada?

When formulating your answer consider both purposes: the current positioning of Canada as a high-quality producer and/or the potential positioning of Canada as a major contributor to end food insecurity around the world.

What direction(s) should we take and why? Food for thought and fodder for dinner discussions.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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