2000 Cattle Feeders Annual
INTO THE FUTURE
CSU's Dr. Gary Smith is optimistic about beef's prospects
"Times change," an anonymous Latin philosopher observed, "and we change with them."
Gary Smith would concur with that. Chances are, he didn't study much Latin philosophy, but he's spent a lifetime studying meat-and those who produce, package and sell it-and he can tell you those old Latins hit close to the mark. He'll also tell you that if change can be compared with a saddle bronc, cattlemen can empathize with the cowboy sitting on the hurricane deck of a horsehide storm. Those who resist riding with changing times may very well wind up watching from the fence, because he who hesitates is oftentimes last.
Twenty years ago, consumers began to make a monumental shift in eating habits. The result was two decades of change in the beef business as cattlemen first tried to understand what was happening, then began to build a concerted effort to make change work for them instead of against them. The investment of hard work and perseverance, and the positive influence of checkoff dollars in research and development of new products and food safety have paid off-consumers have returned to beef.
But Smith will also say that if you thought the last 20 years was an
interesting ride, cinch up tight-the next 10 years will be dynamic times
as the industry adopts new technology and becomes even more
consumer-focused. Some of the things that will drive this change include:
Technologies such as Colorado State University's Beef Cam, Canada's Computer Vision Systems (CVS) and Australia's Video Imaging Analysis (VIA) electronically image beef carcasses, providing graders with a more accurate determination of ribeye size and marbling, fat thickness, and carcass yield. Because these instruments can access carcasses to the nearest tenth of a yield grade, these systems will help plants more accurately reward producers based on cutability as well as quality. Smith expects these instruments to be commonplace in the meat packing business is the near future. Several packing companies have already tested one or more of them at processing speeds; some have them in their facilities now.
Smith also foresees the accelerated use of roboticized harvesting, dressing and fabricating techniques. These will greatly increase packer efficiency, while value-discovery technologies such as instrument grading will more accurately predict carcass quality, palatability and tenderness. He also believes that packers will increasingly begin to provide case-ready packaging of consumer cuts to retailers – some of which will lengthen the shelf life of the product (for example, modified atmosphere packaging which can increase shelf life as well as case life)--and will begin distributing large volumes of beef to consumers via the Internet.
Branded beef. During the last three decades, the industry rolled out scores of branded beef products. Most failed. But a handful gained some traction, and their impact on the marketplace has been undeniable. The industry now claims more than a handful of successful branded beef programs: Certified Angus Beef, B3R Meats, Sterling Silver, Maverick Ranch, Certified Hereford Beef, Chef's Exclusive, Laura's Lean Beef Farmland Black Angus and Harris Ranch Beef to name a few.
Targeted at guaranteeing quality, consistency and palatability, branded programs such as these have forced cattle producers and feeders to become more consumer focused in their management decisions. Smith expects even more innovations to take place in the branded beef business, and for more cattle producers and feeders to take part in production systems to produce specification cattle for specific branded markets.
Vitamin E-fed beef. "One area where cattle feeders can make immediate and substantial improvements in beef quality is through the use of Vitamin E as a dietary supplement in fed cattle rations," says Smith. Not only does Vitamin E bolster animal health and performance, research shows it also improves beef's color, appearance and caselife in grocery stores.
It works like this: When beef is continuously exposed to oxygen, its color changes from the desirable and marketable cherry red to an undesirable purplish-brown in just a few hours. Vitamin E delays the onset of this discoloration for eight to 34 hours because it's an antioxidant.
Maintaining a fresh appearance is especially important economically, because if beef doesn't look fresh, consumers won't buy it. According to recent research, beef's appearance is the No. 1 criterion for consumers when making purchasing decisions. Even so, up to 20% of all beef sold in the U. S. is either discounted or discarded because of discoloration, says Smith.
"Beef is at a competitive disadvantage to poultry, because lots of the chicken and turkey arrive in the supermarket frozen," Smith says. "And poultry doesn't change color when it's displayed in the meatcase."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association estimates U.S. retailers could recover 16 cents per pound and international retailers 52 cents per pound if they marketed Vitamin E-treated beef. That adds up to some pretty hefty figures. All told, if the use of Vitamin E were universal in the U.S., the beef industry could increase the value of its retail product by $1.335 billion per year, Smith says.
Best of all, the level of investment is small: about $1 to $2 a head for the entire feeding period.
Unfortunately, U.S. retailers have been slow to recognize the added value of Vitamin E-fed beef. Consequently, cattle producers have been reluctant to make additional investments until they receive rewards for doing so. Currently, less than 15% of fed cattle produced in the U.S. receive Vitamin E as part of their feeding ration, says Smith.
Consumer-friendly entrees. Twenty years ago, beef demand began a downhill slide that didn't end until late 1999. This trend was caused in large part by the emergence of convenience-focused poultry products. Much of that trend has changed. During the last few years, the industry launched a number of new products for consumers, adding value to low-demand cuts like the round.
Smith strongly believes that one of the best ways to consumers' hearts, and consequently to their checkbooks, is through providing consumer-friendly forms of beef. Many of the new heat-and-serve beef entrees are ready to eat in 20 minutes or less. They have the flavor and overall eating quality that consumers demand along with the convenience they want.
Thanks to breakthroughs in technology – and a renewed focus on consumers – the beef business appears to be doing just that. For this trend to continue, Smith believes that everyone involved in beef production – producers, feedyards, packers and purveyors – must gear up even more to win back consumers. "The industry must continue its ardent struggle to argue its case, using scientific data, that beef nutritionally fits in the diet," Smith says.
In addition, consumers must recognize that the industry is working hard to ensure that beef is -- and will continue to be – microbiologically and chemically safe, and that the industry is investigating production practices and genetics that improve beef's consistency in desirable palatability attributes.
Smith says beef demand can be further increased through producing and marketing convenient products at retail and foodservice establishments and ensuring that cattle are produced in an ecologically sound environment under humane conditions.
The industry must work harder at getting these important messages out to the public.
Although checkoff-funded research and innovative marketing tactics have improved beef's image, Smith says there are several ways producers can contribute to beef's success story. "Producers must believe in Beef Quality Assurance programs and practice BQA protocols religiously, keep cattle as clean (free of mud and manure) as possible, feed Vitamin E for at least 100 days prior to harvest, and use verification technologies for source material, production practices and processes to improve the safety and quality of beef," Smith says.
Producing quality, economically rewarding and consumer-friendly beef requires forward thinking and innovation. Computers and the Internet have revolutionized today's society, significantly easing business communication, data sharing and information access. This technological revolution will change day-to-day business activities for feedlots, especially in procuring feeder cattle and selling finished cattle.
Smith says tomorrow's technologies will enable feedlot operators to increase their involvement in "partnerships, alliances, and branded beef linkages," because they will "make buying and selling cattle less stressful, and growing or developing cattle more profitable" for feeders. Most of all, Smith continues to believe that beef's future is bright.
Armed with the knowledge of the past and ready to charge forward with new technologies, he believes the beef industry is ready to forge new partnerships, create dynamic alliances and guarantee consumers a product tailor-made to fit their needs. "Producers must be ready to respond immediately to remain competitive and to form linkages to those upstream or downstream that maximize opportunities to build, grow or survive," Smith says.
In other words, change with the times.
Editor's Note-Eric Grant is an ag freelance writer in Steamboat Springs, Colo.