Connecting the dots

by Joel Crews
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Since assuming the role on April 1, 1990, J. Patrick Boyle has led the American Meat Institute (AMI) during an era of unprecedented opportunities and challenges requiring the development and implementation of epic and sweeping changes for the meat and poultry industry. The range of issues and challenges faced by the AMI and its leader were as diverse its member companies, which now constitute about 95 percent of the meat and poultry processors in the US. Boyle’s leadership has been characterized by a professional unflappability and laser focus on protecting those interests passionately, both in the US and abroad.

The always-dignified, well-spoken Boyle, whose recounting of past events invariably includes nuggets of intriguing detail, recently reflected on his AMI career as he looks toward his retirement Jan. 31, 2014. In his 24th year, without any polished prose and not even a hint of regret, he says, “You just know when it is time,” referring to his announced retirement in July. “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” he insists.

In hindsight, Boyle says his upbringing, education and career in Washington, DC, all prepared him for his role leading the AMI. In his post-AMI life, the experiences of the past two-and-a-half decades will likely serve him well as he considers what might be next for him.

“Near term, I’ll probably take a short break,” he says, “but I’m not 60 years old yet, so I think I’ll find some other things to do.”

A Notre Dame graduate who went on to earn his law degree, Boyle says he hasn’t ruled out going to work with a Washington-area law firm. Doing some adjunct teaching at one of the many universities in the DC area is another possibility. In the meantime, he plans to dust off his golf clubs and get to work on his swing.

In the beginning

Boyle grew up living in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, with a two-year stint living in New Jersey. His father was a longtime manager of several plants owned by the Ford Motor Company. Boyle’s mother was an executive assistant before becoming a full-time homemaker for Boyle and his younger siblings, a brother and two sisters. He returned to the Midwest after high school to attend college at the Univ. of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Public policy and politics were always an interest, influenced in large part by his mother, “who was a political enthusiast,” according to Boyle. After graduating from college and based on these interests, it made sense to the aspiring lawyer to move to Washington to study law and perhaps build a career around public-policy issues. “I went to law school for a year until the money ran out,” he says. To earn extra money he began teaching English and literature at a Catholic high school in suburban Maryland for two years while completing his legal studies.

Many of his earliest influences had the common background of being lawyers. None of them were practicing lawyers, and Boyle never intended to either, “but I always admired the way their minds worked. I was attracted to law school because of the mental discipline and the logical discipline that three years of legal study impose,” he says.

Earning a law degree, indeed, paid off as his career played out, including his role as general counsel for two trade associations and working as a lobbyist. Growing up in the non-rural Midwest, he didn’t choose a career in the food business, rather it chose him, beginning with a 1980 job offer working as general counsel with the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association (UFFVA).

In looking back on his career, Boyle sees the progression as a series of connecting dots. It was, for example, through his work at the UFFVA that Boyle would meet and ultimately go to work for the longtime mayor of San Diego, Pete Wilson, who later became Sen. Pete Wilson. During the years with Sen. Wilson, Boyle focused on trade and immigration issues. It is Wilson and then-deputy secretary of agriculture, Richard Lyng, who went on to be appointed secretary of agriculture, who Boyle calls his earliest professional influences. As secretary, Lyng appointed Boyle to the position of administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

After Boyle’s tenure with the AMS, then-president of AMI, C. Manly Molpus, announced his retirement, in 1989. A search committee was formed to find the next president of AMI, and as fate would have it, one of the consultants to the committee was Boyle’s former boss, Lyng, who also served as AMI president in the 1970s, just before Molpus. “I’m quite confident that I would not have been the choice if not for some kind words from the former secretary,” says Boyle, who was encouraged to apply for the position.

Through his previous role with the USDA, Boyle had worked with AMI and was very familiar with its role and respected its work. He liked the fact that, unlike similar trade organizations, AMI member companies did not rely on governmental subsidies for its operations. Boyle says he was honored to be offered the position and didn’t take the responsibility lightly. “It’s an important element of the agricultural economy,” he says.

Boyle attributes much of his success at AMI to the “profoundly successful” processors he’s been able to work alongside. He says the best part of his job is working with a new chairman each year. All 24 brought something positive to the role and Boyle says he will forever cherish the relationships he has with those industry leaders.

AMI and indeed, the industry changed significantly during the past 24 years. The structure and role of AMI has evolved as the needs of its growing membership changed. “When I first started here, we had vice presidents for retail marketing and vice presidents for foodservice,” which were meat-based promotions programs. In those days the association was spending upwards of 20 percent of its budget on generic meat promotions, which dated back to the 1950s. Under Boyle, those resources were shifted to areas where new demand existed, which in the early 90s were compliance with regulatory issues. “We have evolved as the industry has evolved around us,” he says.

In the early 90s, Boyle had been at the helm of AMI just over three years when the infamous, Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak began unfolding. He categorizes the incident as “a tragedy of enormous proportions,” adding that then-Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy was just days into his new role when the outbreak was identified. Boyle recalls a subsequent Congressional hearing in Washington state in the aftermath of the outbreak that was one of the more moving and emotional hearings he was ever a part of, given the number of family and loved ones of victims talking from the heart about their losses. Boyle, too, testified at the hearing to address steps the industry needed to take to avoid future tragedies. After watching the local TV news coverage of the hearing that night, which Boyle says was quite balanced and fair, he learned a lesson. “It taught me that if you show up and make your case in a reasonable manner, you might be able to impact the outcome of a story,” he says.

In 1994, largely as a result of the Jack in the Box tragedy, AMI submitted its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) petition to the USDA. “That was completely a member-driven development beginning in the late 80s,” when HACCP principles were becoming a part of many food production operations and in the early 90s when the programs became common in meat and poultry plants specifically, Boyle says.

“We petitioned USDA to mandate it for all federally and state-inspected plants,” which resulted in several years of negotiating and rule making before full implementation took place, he adds. “It continues to serve us and our customers well.”

Boyle’s first petition to Congress was in 1991, when he led an initiative to mandate nutritional labels on meat and poultry products, supplementing the previous year’s passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Nutrition Act, which only applied to FDA-regulated foods.

Boyle says that before his leadership and today, AMI enjoys an excellent reputation on Capitol Hill, as evidenced by its invitations to participate in hearings that impact the industry. Boyle himself has testified dozens of times before Congress on topics including food safety, worker safety, anti-trust enforcement, immigration reform, ethanol policy, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), trade policy and animal welfare. “The reputation we enjoy is hard-earned, but we continue to work on it every day and I feel very good about how we are viewed on the Hill and our impact on the Hill,” Boyle says.

Non-competes

Identifying certain aspects of meat and poultry processing operations as non-competitive issues was another milestone reached by AMI under Boyle, including workplace safety, environmental stewardship, animal handling and food safety. During an era when the industry was chided as one of the most dangerous sectors to work in the country, “it just didn’t make sense to not get a handle on the safety of our plants and the protection of our workers,” says Boyle. In 1992, then-chairman Bill Fielding proposed to the board to mandate worker safety a non-competitive issue, which led to the development of ergonomic guidelines for the industry and the creation of an annual conference focused on workplace safety along with an awards program recognizing companies for improvement in this area.

“Ever since we began that in 1992, the impact on illness and injury rates was immediate,” he says, and rates have continued to drop in every successive year. “It’s a remarkable success story,” he adds.

Subsequently, in the late 90s, the same approach was taken with the issue of food safety, when many ready-to-eat (RTE) meat-processing companies were struggling with Listeria monocytogenes-related outbreaks and beef processors grappled with complying with a zero-tolerance standard for E. coli without the technology or interventions to achieve the standard. It was in an AMI board meeting in the fall of 2001, not long after Bar-S Foods recalled 14.5 million lbs. of product due to Listeria, that Tim Day, then president of Bar-S Foods, proposed that AMI approach food safety in a non-competitive way, which was readily approved and adopted. Within the next few months, the AMI Foundation was re-established and research funds were established to finance research to control E. coli and Listeria. Soon thereafter, non-competitive approaches in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship followed, as companies realized the benefits of the approach.

Another date Boyle will never forget is Dec. 23, 2003. “It was a Tuesday,” he says, “and I was Christmas shopping.” Little did he know his holiday gift-buying and the collective heartbeat of the industry would sputter that day when news broke that a BSE-positive cow was discovered in Washington state. After a chaotic day of phone calls and emergency meetings, Boyle said he arrived home to watch a USDA press conference, which he felt was handled extremely well by the agriculture secretary. “Later that evening, my family and I went out for a steak dinner,” he recalls. Fortunately, US consumers were largely unfazed by the news, although many export markets dried up some for years.

One vastly changing aspect of leading the AMI over the past 24 years has been how the media covers the industry and the impact of technology and social networking on the dissemination of information. During his regime, Boyle categorizes AMI’s approach to media relations as “aggressive.” By this he means rarely, if ever, is an interview request denied, regardless of how contentious or difficult the subject matter would be. Sometimes this makes for some less-than-ideal interview situations, such as Boyle’s appearance on the Colbert Report this past year, during which host Stephen Colbert baited and mocked Boyle, who was a game guest and whose three-hour interview was reduced to a minutes-long segment.

“I think that was the toughest interview I’ve ever done,” says Boyle of the exchange that led at one point to a discussion of Boyle’s views on cannibalism. He holds no grudges in the aftermath of the interview. In fact, Boyle says he regularly watches Colbert’s show and enjoys it. “Sometimes you have to take chances,” he says.

When Boyle, Janet Riley, AMI’s senior vice president of public affairs, or of one of their staff hears of an issue being covered by the general press, they are quick to volunteer information. “We’ve elbowed our way into a number of stories over the years to make sure the industry’s point of view is articulated in the coverage,” Boyle says. AMI has stepped up its monitoring of social media to stay informed of stories that might gain momentum to the detriment of the industry.

Perhaps nowhere was the power of social media more evident than this past year when an ABC News broadcast of the now-infamous “pink slime” story led to a frenzy of online misinformation and ultimately to the closure of three lean finely textured beef plants owned by Beef Products Inc. “I still get angry with ABC News over that,” Boyle says. “I hope BPI wins their lawsuit against ABC,” he says of the company’s pending $1.2 billion defamation case. “It shows you the power of social media.”

Future possibilities

Just months before Boyle announced his plans to step away, AMI and the International Poultry Expo held its first-ever joint trade show in Atlanta, the International Production & Processing Expo. The partnership was one Boyle advocated and supported for years. Later, not long after Boyle’s announced retirement, officials from AMI and the North American Meat Association announced the two sides would be considering a merger in the coming months, which Boyle also supports. With a number of trade associations advocating for many of the same issues for an industry of overlapping members, he says it only makes sense. “There are too many Patrick Boyles out there,” he jokes, all with a common goal of representing the rights of the meat and poultry processing industry. The AMI search committee for Boyle’s replacement has morphed into a merger committee to determine the feasibility of the partnership, precluding the need to appoint another CEO and president of AMI.

Whether he goes down in history as AMI’s longest standing and final leader or not, J. Patrick Boyle is gratified that the organization is well equipped for the future.

“From the time I arrive until the time I walk out early next year, I have always viewed my position as a stewardship role and one that should be measured by maintaining the stature and the respect I found when I arrived at AMI,” Boyle says. “I believe that at a minimum, the same respect and stature remains in place two-and-a-half decades later. I know my successor will be very happy and proud to work with a great organization in a great industry.”
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