By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor
For years one has read with dismay about meat utilization statistics showing once again a decline in beef consumption, almost as regularly one notes an increase in poultry consumption. Much of the latter is based on pricing, more product variety along with incessant marketing campaigns. All of that, outside of the hamburger business, puts beef at a disadvantage.
Beef industry resistance to changing consumer perceptions about meat has not helped either. Clinging to science and common sense to counter myths and lies about beef has become a hopeless cause. What is needed in the beef retailing business is a tidal change in marketing to the gullible consumer. Let me cite an example of a food group that has undergone a complete mental overhaul as to how they market essentially the same product to the naïve consumer, and at higher prices.
Egg producers in Canada at one time resisted any market demand to offer a variety of egg types – free-range, grain-fed, no antibiotics, humane-raised, brown, organic, cage-free, etc. – to discerning consumers. The original industry goal was to produce a safe, healthy white egg at the lowest possible cost – and to a large extent that continues to this day – but that’s not where the real money is. Their unyielding position was enforced because in Canada all egg production, pricing and marketing is rigidly controlled through compulsory quotas by producer-controlled marketing boards. There is no such equivalent in the USA.
The problem is such monopoly control is detrimental to addressing consumer trends and whims. As expected many producers chaffed under such control, and lawsuits were inevitable. To make a long story short – the egg marketing boards came to their senses and now allow the production of a bewildering variety of eggs with all kinds of trendy lifestyle claims that the consumer wants to believe and pay for – as much as eight bucks a dozen. Producers are laughing all the way to the bank.
There are clever niche marketing folks in the beef business who are doing exactly what the egg producers are exploiting. The industry just needs to do that on a bigger scale. To be fair, due to the nature and size of the industry any such effort needs to be done incrementally. The two biggest black eyes the industry faces are antibiotic and hormone use – the reality is no science or common sense will change consumer perceptions that see the use of both of those growth enhancements as bad.
Beef retailers know this all too well and it would seem resistance is futile. So why not embrace the new marketing reality. Make the use of those products so restrictive it becomes uneconomic and a regulatory nightmare. Would it not be a major PR celebration if the industry – not government – announced the phasing out of those growth products within one year. Can it be done? You bet. The North American industry seems to be able to supply ever-increasing, hundreds of thousands of tons of certified antibiotic-free and steroid-free beef to European and Chinese markets. Amazingly they seem to be able to carry out that business and still make a profit.
Retailers and giant fast-food operators would embrace such a bold move as it removes two giant negative perceptions from their merchandising efforts. Besides, big beef buyers are using some subterfuge in their quest to rid themselves of those marketing burdens. They are joining or instigating groups involved in food integrity or sustainable production practices to get them to accept the need to terminate the use of growth promotants in meat production. The underlying and inevitable implication is that sooner or later they will not buy beef that is raised with those products.
That implication has already spread; in Canada, chicken meat producers are phasing out the use of many antibiotics and other artificial enhancements that could be used in negative marketing. It’s guaranteed that such “free-from” production practices will be used in advertising against beef by chicken marketers.
The other front in this issue is that in Canada, the federal government is taking regulatory action by severely restricting antibiotic use for growth enhancement – I expect it will be outlawed sooner rather than later. Added hormone and steroid use is sure to be the next target by the Canadian government. Don’t expect science and common sense to thwart that move. If that happens and the U.S. doesn’t reciprocate, it would put American beef at a marketing disadvantage in one of its largest export markets. More next time.
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