This year, John Butler of the Beef Marketing Group, heads up a gang of beef industry heavyweights as the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef begins its second year of getting an often factious group of stakeholders to come together and create a working definition of sustainable beef practices. The group includes Chair Elect, Rickette Collins, McDonald's Corporation; Secretary/Treasurer, Mark Shaw, Micro Technologies; Ben Weinheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association; Todd Armstrong, Elanco Animal Health; Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, PhD., JBS USA; last year's interim president, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, Cargill; Alisha Staggs, Walmart; Nancy Labbe; World Wildlife Fund and Chad Ellis, Noble Foundation.

Butler acknowledged the considerable consumer pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible. Soon after the Roundtable's second meeting in Denver in mid-July, he said, “The entire industry has a great deal of societal pressure to demonstrate responsibility. By explaining what sustainability really is, documenting the good work we are already doing and then taking steps to improve, we can tell our story of sustainability and build trust in our product. Through these efforts, we can be more transparent with the consumer and that’s something we should all be able to embrace.”

The driver behind all the work being shouldered by the USRSB is that new found consumer curiosity about where their food comes from and how it got there.  Although the activists who want to know comprise a relatively small portion of the public, they are very vocal and many of them know how to work the social networks and political systems to create an out-sized voice.

Of course, most of them are a few generations removed from the farm, so their direct knowledge is limited and often flavored by inputs from people with specific agendas or devoutly believed 'misinformation.'  Nevertheless, groups like the USRSB and the parent Global Roundtable of Sustainable Beef have recognized an absolute requirement to tell the full story as well as develop baselines so that continuous improvements of what Butler has called high priority indicators can be demonstrated to an often skeptical public.

A comment that is slowly gaining credibility in the cattle industry - 'We're not in the beef business; we're in the food business - is causing some cattlemen to rethink what they're doing, too, and how they should be presenting themselves to the public. Managing that attitude and the considerable transparency it brings with it, will be the highest hurdle for the USRSB to overcome.

With that in mind, I asked a few questions of Mr. Butler.  Here's what he said:

Q. Your recent conference in Denver was attended by approximately 150 people. Would you tell me a little bit about who they were and what industry segments they represented? Did the conference meet your expectations?

A. I believe the USRSB has been and will continue to be successful because of its diverse membership, with representation from every segment of the beef supply chain. Additionally, the attendees at the General Assembly included both members of the USRSB as well as non-members. As Chair, I was thrilled to see the high level of interest in the USRSB and the issue of beef sustainability. The heaviest representation is on the producer side, which is important, because without producer engagement we cannot accomplish our mission -- continuous improvement in the sustainability of the U.S. beef industry.

Q. You said the USRSB will provide educational and training resources for each segment of the beef industry supply chain. It sounds like a very ambitious project. Who will you be working with to develop those programs? What kind of industry input do you expect during the development?

A. Regarding education and training resource, you are right to point out that this is a large, and sometimes daunting, task. But worthwhile efforts usually are. We of course don’t intend to re-invent the wheel. There are already a lot of resources out there, and we fully intend to utilize existing industry programs and materials. Putting them all together, identifying any gaps, filling those gaps and then disseminating that information to every industry player who wants to use it is the role we see USRSB filling.

Our process thus far has been a very open one with engagement from the entire industry and we do not expect that to change. We invite others to join the conversation and we will continue to seek input from all stakeholders as we move forward. This type of task will take some time and the work has just begun, so stay tuned.

 

Q. You're a year into your strategic plan. What has worked and what still needs more work?

A. First of all, the structure of the Roundtable has been extremely important to its success from the beginning. We have engaged members from cow-calf producers to major retailers, each with the same vote and voice. We all agree on a common goal of helping the industry find science-based approaches to improving their sustainability, and with the Beef Checkoff-funded Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as our guiding post, we can achieve that goal.

We have accomplished one of our major goals, identifying high priority indicators for our industry (Water Resources, Land Resources, Air & Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Efficiency & Yield, Animal Health & Well-Being, and Worker Safety & Well-Being).

This is where the rubber hits the road as they say. We now need to assess where we are in each of these areas and identify where we can improve. This is another high bar to achieve, but the 70 members who participate in the Indicator Working Group have committed to accomplishing this task over the next year. USRSB has also set out some boundaries when it comes verification.

The Roundtable has committed to providing educational resources and tools to help each segment of the supply chain improve its sustainability. It has also committed to not being a third-party auditor or certifier. We feel strongly that the market should drive third-party verification programs. This line of demarcation will (help) all the business-to-business arrangements to operate independently and provide producers with value added opportunities.

Q. Iowa Beef Center Director Don Lay, talking about verifiable sustainability said the U.S. is in the middle of the process while Brazil and Canada were far ahead of us? Do you agree? If so, what must we do to catch up?

A. The USRSB and each of its members is committed to proactively advancing beef sustainability. The U.S. beef industry has a long history of producing more with less, of innovating, and as an entire supply chain we want to find more ways to continue that progress. Each country has their own set of challenges and therefore their own set of goals. In the U.S., we believe we are taking an approach that will allow maximum engagement from producers, processors, retailers, foodservice providers, NGOs and other stakeholders that will allow the entire industry to advance.

Q. To show the industry is sustainable, “We’re going to have to explain things we can’t believe we have to explain to people,” Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, a Cargill Vice President in charge of their McDonald's business and last year's chairwoman of the Roundtable, told a Nebraska audience at the Governor’s Ag Conference earlier this year. Unfortunately many in the industry have a history of not being willing to explain what they don't think needs to be explained. How will you approach a reluctant audience and convince them to 'talk about it'?

A. I truly believe the vast majority of U.S. beef producers understand the value of sharing what they do and how they do it with the customers who are enjoying their product. The USRSB allows producers to have a seat at the table for these important discussions. It is up to us and members of the beef value chain to help others understand our industry because if we don’t we will not be part of the dialogue moving forward Transparency is an integral part of the trust relationship between consumers and food producers, and the USRSB is committed to facilitating that conversation.

Q. Let's talk about a road block put up by more than 20 groups including industry activists and Consumer Reports when the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, issued an organizing document in 2014. They said GRSB’s work was flawed and issued a harsh statement saying the “report could be regarded as nothing more than an attempt to pass off ‘business as usual’ farming as ‘sustainable.’ We are deeply disappointed by the lack of leadership demonstrated by this process, particularly given the urgent need to achieve real, measurable and verifiable change in conventional beef production." Was it a fair complaint? And how is the USRSB approaching such a negative attitude?

A. As a member of GRSB, the U.S. Roundtable supports the efforts of the GRSB and will continue to be an active part of the organization. We know that what works in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily work in other countries, and vice versa. As the global entity focused on beef sustainability, GRSB developed a principles and criteria document, through a multi-stakeholder process, that could be utilized by each region or country to adopt an approach that addresses that country’s unique needs and challenges.
The global documents were always intended to provide the base for individual counties to build upon. From that point it is up to individual countries to put meat on the bones, which is exactly what USRSB has done and will continue to do as we move down this road.

For more on the beginning stages of the Roundtable, read Five Minutes with Nicole Johnson-Huffman, the interim president of the organization.

 

To learn about the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, read Five Minutes with Dennis Laycraft of the Canadian Cattlemen Association who heads up the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef.