The new Beef Centre of Excellence is pursuing mindshare, not merely market share, says Canada Beef president Rob Meijer.
The centre promotes Canadian beef at home and abroad, and is experimenting with ways to add value through how it’s cut, displayed, and cooked.
“We need to change the paradigm to put (beef) producers and consumers in a space where they can talk and tell stories,” Meijer said during a tour of the centre earlier this summer.
“Because without that relationship, without the integrity, you cannot create trust, you cannot… earn what we call brand loyalty.”
The facility opened in January with funding from the cattle producers’ checkoff and Western Economic Development Canada.
Quality and food safety are just table stakes in global beef marketing, matched by Canada’s competitors in the U.S. and Australia, said Meijer.
“Where we set ourselves apart is when you emotionally connect with the consumer about what’s most important to them,” Meijer said.
“So when the Japanese — or the Koreans or the Mexicans or domestic retailers — leave they will… know we are best in class. But you have to prove it. You have to cook it. You have to cut it. You have to experience it and let them decide.”
The centre’s boardroom does double duty, hosting meetings as well as receptions and white tablecloth banquets. Slide back the “barn door” on one wall and there’s a modern demonstration kitchen wired to record video or to broadcast to TV or the Internet. Behind the kitchen there’s a small-scale butchering facility with a walk-in cooler and freezer.
The centre is to Canadian beef what the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) in Winnipeg is to Canadian crops. Cigi, created in 1972, describes itself as a “one-stop shop of technical expertise and facilities uniquely housed under one roof.”
Cigi is an inspiration and Canada Beef visited it and other technical institutes for ideas, said Ron Glaser, Canada Beef’s vice-president of corporate affairs and operations.
“The icing on the cake beyond Cigi’s technical prowess, which we built into this, is the emotional side,” Meijer said. “We can bring our brand to life through culinary ideation and innovation.
“From a consumer and commercial side, with chefs in mind, we can bring missions in from around the world. They can create menus and recipes and concepts and flavour profiles and dressings and sauces and oils. They can test it and taste it and capture it with video and we can use it for training and they can take it back and plug it into their cultural diversity.”
Canada only exports 65,000 to 70,000 tonnes of beef offshore a year.
“The U.S. can put that into one market in three weeks,” Meijer said. “So we’re a niche player. But that’s good because we can be nimble. We can pick our partners… and create higher value. If you just blitz the market and try to gain market share we become a commodity player and that’s not where we want to be.”
Canada’s main offshore markets are Mexico, Japan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Dubai.
Not everyone consumes beef like Canadians, Meijer said. In Japan, Canada Beef is pushing steak houses and barbecue. The latter is proving so popular, barbecue sales are on the rise, said Meijer.
There are opportunities to boost beef sales at home too, said Abe Van Melle, a veteran butcher and the centre’s technical manager. Beef sausage is popular in Australia and Van Melle believes it can be here too.
Rope meat, also known as hanging tender, which is traditionally ground into hamburger, has potential as a roast or steak. It’s similar to flank steak in that if marinated and cooked slowly at lower temperatures it’s tender and tasty.
“It’s really something that’s underutilized,” Van Melle said. “There’s only one on every animal so if it gets some success in terms of product ideation we may find a market globally for it.”
The centre is also experimenting with different post-killing processes such as dry aging, which concentrates flavour, but reduces yield through shrink.
Taste comparisons are being done between grass- and grain-fed animals.
The centre will work with any type of beef, or beef-raising process — including those under a ‘free-from program,’ located anywhere in Canada, so long as it doesn’t claim to be superior to others.
“We wouldn’t allow one group to say ‘we’re better’ than another group, or let one region say it was better than another, or let one production group say, ‘We’re healthier or safer or more sustainable’ than another,” Glaser said. “We believe there is a place for all those types of production systems.”
The centre also has regular beef buyers in mind.
While there hasn’t been a consumer push-back against high beef prices, Canadians are looking for ways to make their beef dollar go further, said Meijer.
“People understand that beef is quality,” he said. “What we don’t want to ever happen is beef to become like crab legs or lobster — you only have it on special occasions.
“We want to make sure it’s in the consumer’s mind. That’s why we’re working on mindshare, not market share.”