Starting the outreach effort two years ago, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has placed a strong emphasis on the Twitter generation. At least 20 percent of the nearly 2,200 program graduates are 21 years old or younger.
The online MBA program is available in 47 states and is popular at public land-grant universities with strong agricultural schools, such as the University of Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky. The six-hour course is typically offered as extra credit rather than a required assignment. Students who finish it are expected to speak to school groups and civic clubs or build online buzz through social media.
Missouri senior Erin Mohler and other members of the school's Collegiate Cattlewomen's club spent a recent afternoon sharing their "Meet Your Meat" message with passing students on a busy pedestrian mall. Volunteers sold rib-eye steak sandwiches from a portable food trailer while a 1,600-lb. Simmental beef cow named Summer grazed nearby in a temporary enclosed pen. Students passed out recipes for Moroccan-style beef kabobs and tenderloin salad, while other brochures touted beef's high nutrition content.
Mohler, a senior animal sciences major, said her perspective isn't always embraced on campus. Yet, she is undeterred.
Reactions have been mixed to Summer and her handlers. Last year, the group convinced several passers-by to renounce their vegetarian ways, group member Kaitlyn Lee said. But one freshman called the display "kind of gross."
The grassroots campaign is a part of the US beef industry's effort to reverse a five-decade slide in meat consumption by Americans. Seed money came from the $1 per head of domestic and imported live cattle that producers pay under a 1985 federal law. Fifty cents of each $1 goes to the national cattle group's Beef Promotion and Research Board.
Daren Williams, executive communications director for the Denver-based NCBA, called focusing the outreach on college campuses a needed approach. "There's a political, social and economic discussion going on about food production," he added. "[Beef producers] have felt left out of the discussion."