Your National Beef Checkoff Program: 25 years and counting - part 5

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It's often referred to as “the cow that stole Christmas.” Frankly, it could easily have been the cow that stole the U.S. beef industry altogether. Oh, and while there’s no denying that this cow did its share of damage, and there were casualties along the way, it didn’t take the industry down. Why not? Well, few would argue with the claim that it’s thanks to your Beef Checkoff Program that the industry averted across-the-board destruction of cattle producers’ livelihoods.

Of course, twas the night before Christmas Eve, nearly eight years ago, when discovery of a single dairy cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state put holiday celebrations for much of agriculture on hold and fixated global attention on the U.S. beef and dairy industries and the issue of beef safety.

Oh sure, most producers knew that BSE was not a human-health issue, but the majority of the population in this country jumped on the immediate bandwagon call of “Danger, Danger!” set off by consumer media who knew nothing of the cattle disease and had quickly assumed it was a threat to everyone who as much as laid their eyes on beef in the supermarket meat case. Add to the mix a rather ecstatic anti-meat faction, part of which took the case as an opportunity to further its cause, and the beef industry had itself a frenzied mess.

In the spirit of the season, though, it was something of a miracle that followed. Immediately, an informational, myth-busting, science-based website lit up to help answer consumers’ – as well as USDA’s and the food industry’s – frenzied questions about whether they should stop eating beef and, literally, if they were going to die from beef they had already eaten. And that website was just one of a slew of resources that your Beef Checkoff Program kicked into action and fed literally around the clock throughout the holiday season and beyond.

That’s because you’ve invested your checkoff dollars in things like what is internally called “issues management,” something of a behind-the-scenes emergency response team to safeguard your industry, to protect your bottom line.

For the most part, issues management represents ‘the best news you’ve never heard’ – putting out misinformation sparks before they become full-fledged conflagrations. So while you don’t read as much front-page news about the daily contact that this crisis-aversion team makes with consumers, researchers, health professionals, food manufacturers and processors, beef importers and exporters, and the anti-beef camp, the beef and dairy industries certainly got a firsthand look at the results on Dec. 23, 2003 and the months that followed.

For it was long before that day that your Beef Checkoff Program did its forward “what-if” crisis planning when it came to BSE. In fact, you can look back to the neurological cattle disorder’s epizootic in the United Kingdom a decade earlier as a red-flag catalyst for checkoff attention to the matter in the U.S. The beef industry in this country was determined that if and when BSE were to be found here at any point, we would be ready and, thus, avoid the precipitous devastation that England had experienced. Many importers and U.S. cattlemen quickly became more thankful than ever for those dollar-per-head checkoff assessments they’d been paying for some 17 years at that point.

Your checkoff invested in its future, and the research, planning and organization of facts about BSE was already up-to-date and in place on the front line. At the base, your checkoff had a “dark” website replete with data and information to help guide the discussion and educate the masses. So when the conflagration ignited in Washington State on that memorable night before Christmas Eve, the crisis plan was put into action: The website immediately went live, the state/national coordination that had been practiced “in case” many times in recent years, along with widespread sharing of important BSE facts and activation of checkoff and third-party researchers and other experts to speak to consumers and government leaders globally about the continued safety of U.S. beef in the wake of BSE.

In 2004, the checkoff-funded Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) sponsored a BSE Safety Summit, and through that and various other ongoing research and information programs, brought the industry together for post-BSE planning, in a never-ending effort to maintain an industry reputation that cattlemen can be proud of.

And there’s no doubt that these efforts paid off. In fact, despite universal awareness of BSE after the U.S. case, consumer confidence that U.S. beef was safe from BSE stood at 89 percent upon the announcement of the case in Washington State, and within just a couple of weeks had reached a then-high level of 90 percent, which grew to 91 percent by Feb. 12, 2004 and remains strong to this day. Those are some impressive facts to hang your checkoff hat on!

Overcoming Emotion

At the core of an issue like this, and so many others that your issues-management team addresses on a daily basis, is emotion. For example, many activists regularly depend on sensitive emotional pleas to change consumers’ minds about issues, often without the presence of sound scientific data to support those tug-at-your-heart appeals. The fact is, we humans are an emotional bunch, for the most part – or want to appear to be compassionate, at the very least – so this approach often works. At least out of the gate.

But in the case of BSE and so many other reported ‘findings’ that try to tear at the very fabric of the beef industry, that initial compassion comes to wear thin in time, or in the face of facts. That’s because we as humans are, again for the most part, also a rather proud bunch that likes to think for itself and wants proof of claims before making individual educated judgments.

If it weren’t for the groundwork laid by the likes of USDA and checkoff-funded research, and the resulting information deluge they support, there is little doubt that the beef industry would be unable to keep up with the opposition. That’s especially apparent when you consider the massive and growing activist-organization budgets and social media dynasties that are exponentially larger than the checkoff’s and often seem determined to put the cattle industry out of business altogether. The beef industry’s power is in the science, the industry information, if you will.

Industry Information

The type of issues management that we’ve talked about here so far is part of a larger checkoff budget component called “Industry Information.” That term is officially defined in the Beef Promotion & Research Act as “information and programs that will lead to development of new markets, marketing strategies, increased efficiency, and activities to enhance the image of the cattle industry.”

In addition to issues management, this includes equally important programs, such as public relations and beef and veal quality assurance. Let’s take a look at some of the other successes of your industry information programs during its first 25 years: 

Beef Quality Assurance – Ensuring beef safety and quality. It’s something you do on your farm or ranch every day. It’s also at the heart of the checkoff-funded Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. Designed to return more profits to producers, BQA teaches the ins and outs of effective herd management to maximize the quality of producers' end product – beef. But delivering the safest, healthiest, most humanely raised beef possible is a benefit not just to producers, but also to consumers, and increased consumer confidence in beef and beef products is the very heart of this program. With that in mind, producers who complete the training sessions, pass a national BQA test, and agree to adhere to BQA guidelines often get premium dollars and/or contracts for their cattle, not to mention the benefits of increased consumer confidence in the form of increased beef purchases.

Through 25 years of checkoff investments, the Beef Quality Assurance program has evolved from its precursor program, Beef Safety Assurance, which focused tightly on making sure that beef was free of volatile chemical residues, to the program of today, which most recently brought the varied state elements of the program back together via development of a set of cohesive national guidelines to make for consistent, effective training and application of said guidelines. Key tools have included development of those national guidelines and manuals (both in beef and dairy versions), BQA assessment materials, training sessions and other face-to-face meetings, printed materials, live demonstrations, BQA producer awards recognizing adherence to BQA principles and, new in 2011, online certification. In addition, the checkoff helps fund the Stockman and Stewardship program, which travels the country teaching cattle-handling methods that improve gathering, penning, chute work, and hauling, with an emphasis on increasing cattle performance and improving consumers’ perceptions about beef.

National Beef Quality Audits – These are the very cornerstone of the BQA program. Begun in 1991 and conducted every five years, the National Beef Quality Audits define and benchmark quality-related areas in need of improvement. The first national quality audits focused on fed steers and heifers, and was later followed by the national market cow and bull audit, the latest of which was completed in 2007. Another audit is under way in 2011. This is a critical evaluation tool, measuring the growth and success of the BQA program and overall production practices that affect the quality of the end beef products. Results, you ask? Sure thing. The latest audit showed improvements in a host of areas, including visible defects, abscesses and lumpy jaw, presence of mud and manure on legs, and a 22 percent reduction in the number of animals with brands since 1999. For specifics, go to Quality Audits. And for the upcoming 2011 National Beef Quality Audit, the checkoff is, for the first time ever, asking for direct producer feedback, so give yours at cattlesurvey.com.

“Everyday Environmentalist” Earth Day campaign – More than a dozen years ago, amid growing propaganda about the effect of farming and ranching on the environment, the checkoff began telling consumers about the steps that America’s cattle farmers and ranchers take to improve the environment – sometimes referred to as the “pasture-to-plate story.” That has included things such as placing Earth Day ads in USA Today and other national consumer publications, which, more recently has grown into a multifaceted “Everyday Environmentalist” campaign -- and the first-ever Cattlemen's Stewardship Review -- which stress the importance of conservation to farmers and ranchers, as stewards of the land, and then measure how well you've performed that service, for all to see. It addresses animal welfare, safety, nutrition, cattle raising practices, and traits of ranching-family businesses through a variety of communications outreaches, in print, online, and via broadcasting outlets.

Built on a strong base of research and reality, here is a taste of some of the little-known facts and statistics shared via the checkoff’s Everyday Environmentalist campaign: Farmers and ranchers who raise cattle are doing their part to protect the environment while providing food for a growing planet; today’s American farmer feeds about 144 people worldwide; grazing animals on land not suitable for producing crops more than doubles the land area that can be used to produce food; if 1955 technology were used to produce the amount of beef raised today,165 million more acres of land would be needed—that’s about the size of Texas! The results? Market research indicates that American consumers have growing faith in cattle farmers and ranchers, as well as in the food those ranchers feed a hungry world.

Defending Animal Agriculture – What is commonly termed the “animal-rights movement” dates back as early as the 15th Century, when a handful of philosophers and thinkers, among them Leonardo da Vinci, was vocal about their refusal to eat meat. But most historians say the 1970s is when the modern animal-rights movement took hold, beginning with British psychologist Richard Ryder, who coined the phrase “speciesism” in 1970. And that movement changed the beef industry, and the way consumers viewed it. So beginning 25 years ago, your checkoff stepped in to provide balance to the emotional issues and claims of this movement, like the BSE case we described above, to minimize misinformation and keep or return the discussion train to a factual track. Other situations through which your checkoff has taken the lead via issues management include Jeremy Rifken’s “Adopt-a-McDonalds” campaign, John Robbins’ “Diet for a New America,” the Hallmark/Westland fiasco of 2008, as well as “Fast Food Nation” and a long list of other efforts opposing modern beef production. The checkoff serves as an informational resource and offers scientific perspective on difficult issues.

So, does ‘industry information’ include some of the best news you’ve heard about the beef industry? Sure it does. And yet ... some of the best news you never heard? You bet.


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