Beef Checkoff details its social responsibility study

by Bryan Salvage
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DENVER – Although US consumers are more disconnected from agriculture and food production than ever before, many want to know more about who raises food. In fact, about three-out-of-four people claim they want to know more about how beef is raised and who raises it, according to research conducted by The Beef Checkoff. As a result, The Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review: Connecting Our Vision and Values was just released by the The Beef Checkoff and it provides an inside look at US cattlemen’s influence on US communities, the economy, public health and the environment.

“One aspect of the US beef industry’s long-range plan just developed at the [National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Annual Cattle Industry Convention] held in February in Denver was to have closer ties between the consumers and the producers,” Bill Donald, NCBA President and Melville, Mont. rancher told MEATPOULTRY.com. “Many people are trying to identify who we are — but we want to identify who we are on our own terms. This review gives a holistic look at the entire industry — from the feedstock segment all the way up through the wholesale and retail segments. It‘s important for beef processors, in particular, to understand this [study] is going to help us have a better rapport with our consumers.

The review is built on seven fundamental principles adopted by US cattle farmer and rancher leaders at their recent convention. It details cattlemen’s commitment to preserving the environment, raising healthy cattle, providing quality food, enhancing food safety, investing in communities, embracing innovation and creating a sustainable future for generations to come.

Key US cattle farmer and rancher accomplishments are showcased in the Review including:

  • US cattlemen provide 20% of the world’s beef with only 7% of the world’s cattle.
  • Cattlemen have invested $30 million of their beef checkoff dollars in safety improvements since 1993. Collaborative beef-industry efforts have helped reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses, including E. coli O157:H7, which now affects less than one person in 100,000 people.
  • More than 90% of feedyard cattle raised in the US today are influenced by Beef Quality Assurance (BQA), the checkoff-funded program that sets guidelines for animal care and handling.
  • The “carbon footprint” of beef shrank 18% between 1977 and 2007 as beef farmers and ranchers raised 13% more beef with 13% fewer cattle. When compared to 1977, each lb. of beef raised in 2007 used 20% less feed, 30% less land, 14% less water and 9% less fossil-fuel energy.
  • Cattle farmers’ and ranchers’ environmental efforts help manage and protect more than 500 million acres of permanent grassland and a variety of wildlife and endangered species.
  • Approximately one-half of cattle farmers and ranchers volunteer with youth organizations while more than one-third donate their time to other civic organizations, compared to a national average of 7% of all Americans.

Opportunities for farmers, ranchers and checkoff-funded programs to continue to grow and improve down the road are identified in the Review. Visions for the future include:

  • Responsibly conducting and sharing research about beef and healthy diets, pathogens and food safety and animal health and nutrition.
  • Continuing to expand and refine quality-assurance programs to encourage broader adoption of beef quality-assurance standards.
  • Conducting a multi-phase, multi-year lifecycle assessment that details the environmental footprint of US beef.
  • Identifying more consistent and complete ways to quantify the beef industry’s contribution to the community and the country’s economic stability.

Serving the world
When asked if he was confident the US beef industry can satisfactorily meet the growing need for beef around the world, Donald replied: “We’re very confident. We have the best model of cattle production in the world. The US cattle industry is a dynamic industry. It never stays in one place and languishes. We have always been looking at ways to become more efficient and effective."

Donald said food producers will be trying to feed another 3 billion people in 40 years. “How are we going to do that?” he asks. “We’ll to do it with technology, better genetics, better vaccines and all the things that make this industry such a great model for the world. I’m confident the innovativeness of the American cattle industry is going to keep pace.”

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, recently said there can be no sacred cow when discussing food safety and that pre-harvest food practices have got to be a part of the discussion. When asked how NCBA feels about beef farmers and ranchers adopting on-farm HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point) programs, Dr. Tom Field, NCBA executive director of producer education, said there are a host of approaches that can be used to produce safer food.

“The challenge is how do we approach this so we don’t create a cookie-cutter approach that doesn’t work in the long run?” he said. “There is a lot of interest in pre-harvest food safety, in what can be done from both a vaccine and a management perspective. There’s a lot of need for research and you’ll see cattle producers actively engaged in that conversation. This is a solution the industry needs to come up with because my gut tells me a ‘one size fits all’ regulation isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Testing new and emerging food-safety technologies is critical. Field said the US beef producers’ involvement in this area is primarily through BIFSCo (Beef Industry Food Safety Council).

“The role of US cattle producers has always been trying to serve as a catalyst for partnership,” Field said. “When it comes to food safety, BIFSCo has been a great model. That partnership gives the ability to bring a lot of people together with strong technical and scientific backgrounds to find adequate and correct solutions for food-safety interventions.”

Consumer concern over animal care and handling will continue to increase in the future, Donald predicts. “There have been a lot of animal-rights groups and anti-animal ag groups that have accused the beef industry of not having the best practices,” he added. “I think through the work with our checkoff dollars and working with Dr. Temple Grandin on the animal-handling guidelines, there is an absolute commitment indicated that [cattlemen] are good stewards of the land and animals."

Field thinks it’s important for processors to know that a lifecycle analysis to evaluate the environmental impact of the US beef industry is being undertaken through Beef Checkoff funding.

“We’re going to do that from a perspective of not only what is the environmental footprint, but also what are the environmental benefits of our industry, what are the community impacts and benefits of our industry and what are the economic sustainability impacts of our industry in total in terms of the jobs we create, products we produce for consumers—not only domestic but worldwide,” he added.

“This project is going to be a great one and will send us down a path of a very long investment in that area,” Field continued. “But I think it is going to be a value to all of us in the business. We’re more confident about the fact the US model for beef production is one that is sustainable, environmentally friendly and has far more benefits and impact. What you’re going to see from our industry at the cow-calf level, the feedyard level and the stocker level is a continued commitment to continuous improvement.”

US cattlemen have a great story to tell on their environmental efforts and achievements, Donald said. “The environmental practices beef producers have put in place have had a great impact on not only our ability to run more cattle on less acres, but also to get cattle out of riparian areas with water developments, to get cattle to the back of the pastures rather than laying around the creeks...those are all healthy things," he added.

One by-product or secondary benefit of this effort is the increase in the habitat for wildlife, Donald said. “In Montana, 75% to 80% of the wildlife are on private lands, even though close to 50% of our land is public land,” he added. “A lot of this is due to the environmental stewardship practices that have been put in place by producers. This part of the report sheds some good light onto the cattle industry’s role in the beef industry.”

Some traditional ag states now have elected officials with little or no ag backgrounds. To ensure these elected officials are in the know about the US beef industry, NCBA’s Beef 101 program is dedicated to educate these legislators and their staff.

“As we engage those people in conversation...we’re able to dispel some of the urban myths about our business,” he continued. “But more importantly, we’re able to establish relationships so when they have a question --rather than looking to somebody else’s Web site for an answer, they’ll call us for the right data and the truth.”

Looking forward, Donald and Field are confident in the future of US cattlemen and cattlewomen.

“Both my sons and their families are on the ranch with us,” Donald said. “They’re vitally interested in being a part of the ranch. The next generation of cattlemen I see coming up tend to treat being a cattleman more like a business than a lifestyle.”

Field added he meets many young cattlemen and university students studying agriculture during his travels. “My deeply held belief is the greatest generation of agricultural leaders, managers and businesspeople is on the horizon,” he said. “I think they’re going to have a more global viewpoint, understand technology far better than I ever did and they’re going to understand the global systems approach as a business. They’re going to have to be a lot more aware of being in touch and in tune with consumers. We’re going to attract an absolutely brilliant generation of people back to the business.”

The Review is available at www.ExploreBeef.org, along with short videos of stakeholder interviews discussing the beef industry’s accomplishments.

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