The beef industry has bigger problems than E. coli

No collaboration The beef industry is suffering from too many 
organizations and not enough leadership

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The fallout from the E. coli contamination at the XL beef plant is bad enough, but it will be even worse if this single issue diverts the industry from looking at some of its larger long-term challenges.

Farmers got cranky enough about the Canadian Wheat Board, so imagine there was a Canadian Beef Board in charge of cattle marketing right now, and this was the state of the industry?

  • Canadian cow herd down 20 per cent from 2005.
  • Only one significant export customer — the U.S.
  • Net beef trade balance with the U.S. down from $1.4 billion to only $42 million in 10 years, partly because that customer is using our cattle to exporting higher-value muscle cuts to others — including us. We are at risk of becoming a net importer of beef from the U.S.

Imagine the demonstrations in front of the Canadian Beef Board building, and the placards and news releases declaring, “We sell them hamburger, they sell us steaks.”

But while there is no Canadian Beef Board, that’s precisely the state of our beef industry, yet producers and their organizations are virtually silent.

That assessment, plus much more detail, is found in the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s (CAPI) recent assessment of the Canadian beef system.

To that we can add that now this is an industry that can have 40 per cent of its slaughter capacity shut down for weeks at a time because a few workers didn’t wash their hands properly or failed to wear beard nets.

“A long-term and shared strategy is needed to build the beef brand and to generate consumer trust,” says the CAPI report issued last month — before the XL closure. The need for that strategy is now even greater.

The industry was conspicuously silent following the release of the report, which is probably explained by some of the report’s main conclusions:

1. The sector has no long-term and shared strategic plan, and needs an explicit strategy that brings stakeholders together.

2. The sector is characterized by minimal collaboration, and participants along the supply chain need to align their objectives.

3. Too many voices speak for the sector, and leadership is needed to improve the dialogue and move toward greater collaboration and unified purpose.

The CAPI report lays out a road map for the industry to follow, and as it points out, many of the basic requirements are there.

Consumers want the product, and they increasingly want to know that what they eat was produced humanely and with minimal effect on the environment. Beef — produced properly — can meet those requirements as well or better than any other meat.

Meeting environmental and animal-welfare requirements means more land, more grass and more water. Canada, especially Western Canada, is blessed with all three.

Industry collaboration requires systems to track animals and the meat produced from them. With the national ID system and other voluntary systems such as BIXS, Canada is already well ahead of others, especially the U.S.

So why is the industry slipping? The answer may lie in CAPI’s third point — “Too many voices speak for the sector.”

Cattlemen and women have always prided themselves in their independence, a trait which is certainly required to stay in the business. But independence shouldn’t go to the point where you refuse to co-operate. The Prairie grain business is famous for politics, but when you throw in breed organizations, marketers, feedlots, packers and industry groups, politics in the beef business are worse.

Which takes us back to CAPI’s question — who is to provide the leadership for the cattle and beef industries to prosper? That leadership needs to include challenging conventional wisdom, including the tendency to paint a too-rosy future.

The CAPI report may also be guilty of that. While there are no doubt opportunities for offshore sales growth to growing economies, note the same assumption from 47 years ago in the “Our history” section on this page this week. That offshore growth may or may not materialize, but on the other hand all meat industries need to face the fact that North Americans eat twice as much as is good for them. It would be foolish to assume that will continue.

But the beef industry does need to continue. The long-term health of agriculture in Canada depends on maintaining forage, either permanently or as part of a rotation. That in turn requires a healthy beef business.

Discussion of the CAPI report should be on the agenda for every cattle and beef organization this winter.

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