Sustainable beef is working — but don’t let up on the messaging

Pandemic has increased consumer interest in where food comes from, and that’s an opportunity

Does sustainable beef matter in a pandemic?

‘Yes,’ a restaurateur and food distributor said at the virtual Canadian Beef Industry Conference — prompting the two farmers on the panel discussion to call for more co-operation to get the word out on what ranchers are doing for the environment.

The public is definitely interested, said Darren Frey, national merchandising manager for Gordon Food Services, the largest privately held food distributor in North America.

“Five or six years ago, you never had questions from customers about the attributes of beef or of sustainability,” he said.

Now, every consumer that calls has a lot of very specific questions.

“We’re working hard and fast to get our sales teams and product teams up to speed to answer all these questions that come from our customers,” said Frey.

The president of the Chop Steakhouse & Bar has been doing the same with waitstaff since becoming the first sit-down restaurant in the country to offer a menu item (a burger) made from beef certified by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB).

His servers were dumbfounded when told about cattle’s role in maintaining grasslands and how ranchers care for their land, said Marcel Blais.

Marcel Blais.
photo: Supplied

“They’re amongst the best stewards we have for the environment, and when our young teams learn it, I can see it in their eyes — and they think, ‘That’s not what I saw on Netflix,’” said Blais.

“We show them the evidence, we show them the support we get from Ducks Unlimited and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and they’re blown away. It gives them a sense of pride.”

The two producers on the panel said the pandemic has made consumers even more receptive to that message.

Karleen Clark.
photo: Supplied

“They had to think about the logistics of what brings beef to their plates,” said Karleen Clark, who operates KCL Cattle Company, a mixed cattle, feeding and farming operation in Lethbridge County with her parents, husband and sister’s family.

“We had more people reaching out to ask for beef straight from our farm.”

People felt they could trust producers and go straight to them, which is a shift, she said.

Maryjo Tait said the empty grocery store shelves inspired people to reach out to her family’s cow-calf operation near London, Ont.

Maryjo Tait.
photo: Supplied

“They were going to the grocery store and for the first time, they saw a food shortage and were not able to get that beef,” she said. “It’s been positive to open up that conversation and open their eyes.”

However, that can be difficult, Tait added, noting her farm is registered with Verified Beef Production Plus (one of two CRSB-approved certification bodies), but most people don’t know what that means.

But it’s critical that consumers understand what the beef sector is doing on the sustainability front so that when they see the CRSB logo, it has meaning for them, said Blais.

“There’s value in sustainability to the end consumer,” he said. “If there isn’t value to them, it’s a cost that will have to be cut. We have to do a good job as an industry to make sure we aren’t on that list of expenses that are getting cut. We need more restaurants to jump on board, and we need to continue our story.”

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Clark said it is good to have companies like McDonald’s and Chop Steakhouse & Bar telling the beef ranching story.

“Me, sitting here as a feedlot operator, I can’t get my message out in a way that they seem to be able to get it out,” she said. “They’re the storytellers, they’re the people in public, and I think it’s important that the work that the CRSB is doing is so good.

“They’re bringing us together and they’re helping us tell our story that we have had trouble telling in the past.”

Producers need to remember that most people are several generations removed from the farm, added Tait.

“You can’t fault people for what they don’t know,” she said. “We need those excellent partnerships through our distributors, processors and retailers. That’s why the CRSB is so appealing.”

Blais emphasized that a strong message will find an audience.

“Overwhelmingly, people want to know where their food comes from and how it got to the table and their plate,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

But ranchers, packers, distributors, stores and restaurants have to keep talking to each other, he added.

“We have a problem of having too many good angles to take (and) we’re plagued with a history of not talking to each other,” said Blais. “One of the best things the CRSB has done in my opinion is bring together these stakeholder groups.”

Clark agreed and spoke of her family’s “core values” — such as working hard, being efficient and remaining economically viable — and how they have driven the success of KCL Cattle Company (which has bought and expanded two feedlots in Alberta and is part owner of another in Saskatchewan). All the players in the beef value chain need to understand each other’s view of sustainability and how they can work together, she said.

“We all need to come together to say what sustainability means and find out how we can drive forward with our core values together,” said Clark.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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