Consumers Want Transparency in Beef Production
It was supposed to be a major achievement in Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts to bring jobs to Kansas. Instead, residents of Leavenworth County, Kan., quickly organized last month to thwart plans by Tyson Foods to build a $320 million poultry processing unit with 1,600 new jobs in their community.
Tyson is no stranger to Kansas, with six facilities operating in the state employing 5,700 workers. But Tyson has not built a new facility in 20 years, and the prospect of a food giant operating near the county seat of Tonganoxie, population 5,000, sent residents into a panic.
Concerns about Tyson as a new neighbor included the sudden impact on local schools, increased traffic.
The chief complaint, however, was the impact to the environment from Tyson’s slaughter plant, feed mill and grower houses. In effect, Tyson’s announcement unveiled how much American’s views about modern food production have changed.
For better or worse, perceptions of how you raise animals and how those animals are processed have been shaped by ambitious marketing professionals working for top food retailers. Chains such as Panera Bread, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Chipotle, etc., all want consumers to believe they’re making an environmental statement when they eat at their stores.
Panera Bread, for instance, sees itself as a champion of the clean food movement, delivering “food as it should be.” Chipotle has promised “food with integrity.” But a statement from Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s, exemplifies the one-upmanship food retailers are using to lure customers.
“More consumers are looking for cleaner and more all-natural menu items,” Haley says. “A few years ago, we became the first major fast food chains to offer all-natural, grass-fed beef burgers with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics.”
Previously, farmers and ranchers saw the production and marketing of nontraditional meat as a niche. No more. The 2016 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) listed “how and where cattle were raised” as one of the top five challenges.
“The scope of the term ‘quality’ has expanded, and justifiably so,” says Gary Smith, visiting professor of meat science at Texas A&M University and Colorado State University. “Consumers want to know where food comes from and how it was produced. Social issues—such as animal care/handling and sustainability—have gained traction with consumers of our products.”
Such traction encourages some new players in the protein market—alternative meats, start-ups racing to market meat without the animal. Josh Tetrick, a 37-year-old food tech entrepreneur and the CEO of Hampton Creek, claims his company has made chicken fingers with poultry cultured in a laboratory from a single chicken feather.
One of Hampton Creek’s competitors, Memphis Meats, is developing similar technology to grow meat from self-reproducing animal cells. Cargill has invested in the start-up.
Consumers also find a growing selection of meatless burgers. One of the category’s pioneers, Beyond Meat, has signed TGI Friday’s as a partner, which plans to launch the meatless burgers nationwide in early 2018. Tyson owns a 5% stake in Beyond Meat.
Cargill and Tyson are not known for throwing money around. They’re aware retail sales of plant-based foods that replace animal products are up 8% since last year, and sales for plant-based foods topped $3.1 billion.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications for the Animal Ag Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based livestock industry advocate, says alternative proteins offer choices to consumers.
“Given the forecasts that food production will need to double by 2050, lab grown meat can also be an additional way to help meet that demand,” Thompson-Weeman says. “The fact that meat industry players like Cargill and Tyson have invested in meat alternative startups should reflect that the meat industry isn’t exactly running scared.”
She’s concerned, however, by marketing and activist groups pushing the moniker of clean meat in place of lab-grown or cultured.
“Clean meat is clearly an attempt to first imply that conventionally produced meat is dirty by comparison, and second, to distance the product from the technology used to produce it—since we know from the GMO debate that consumer reactions to technology in food production are mixed at best,” Thompson-Weeman says.
While food retailers jostle for position, ranchers are being urged to speak up about their environmental and animal stewardship track records—to be more transparent.
Indeed, America’s beef industry has a great track record and that story needs to be told. For instance, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a new report that is cattle-friendly. Contrary to some earlier FAO publications, “Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table?” says livestock contribute to food security, and that 86% of the diet of cattle around the globe is made up of materials not edible by humans.
“Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn,” says Jude Capper, a UK-based livestock sustainability consultant. “Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.”
Capper’s research shows the carbon footprint of cattle were reduced more than 16% during the three decades between 1977 and 2007, largely due to the use of genetics and technology.
“It’s clear productivity and efficiency are key factors in reducing the environmental impact of meat production,” she says. “Therefore, if we improve calving rate, number of calves weaned, weights throughout the system and growth rate, the carbon footprint is reduced.”
While it’s unlikely the carbon footprint of beef will ever be less than, say, poultry, it’s important, Capper says, to note cattle provide benefits that poultry and swine do not.
“In the future, we need to move away from environmental impact only being assessed on carbon footprint, as this doesn’t account for water use, biodiversity, use of land where human food crops can’t be grown, and other environmental measures. We also need to take the nutritional value in account—sugars and syrups are the foods with the lowest carbon footprints but the biggest potentially negative effects on health.”
While beef stakeholders work to polish their environmental scores, Capper says it’s important to inform retailers about the scientific rationale behind the use of technologies.
"There’s still a relatively small market for alternative meat products—most people simply want safe, nutritious food at an affordable price,” Capper says. “Most retailers have solid sustainability policies that include the use of fewer resources to produce a set quantity of meat or eggs, yet if they’re unaware of the science, marketing decisions may be made in a vacuum.”
Additionally, Capper says, farmers and ranchers will need to embrace the expanded definitions of beef quality such as sustainability.
“Like it or not, if the consumer and retailer are demanding more transparency and want ‘sustainable’ food that can be audited and assessed as such, we have to accept that this has to be verified and therefore will involve auditors, paperwork, etc.,” Capper says. “Ultimately, we have to listen to the consumer voice, by which I mean the majority and not the (very vocal) activist minority. Changes have occurred in every food industry over the past decades in order to fulfill consumer requirements and this is not going to go away in the future.”