Jolley: What is to become of beef?

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My mother-in-law hated lamb.  She grew up during the depression when national consumption was much higher than today’s paltry .8 pounds per capita.  She saw it as a cheap protein resource when she was a tot and was appalled at the price it commanded when she grew older. 

In the free market, two things can conspire to drive prices of a commodity higher; tighter supply and increased demand.  The two can combine to create a fearsome double whammy that can make the price so prohibitively high that it moves from a staple to an occasional treat.

Knowing that beef is facing the frightening possibility of that kind of market smack down, let’s throw in a third stumbling block: health fears.  It’s the ultimate product killer. Suggest that consuming something might increase your chances of getting some dread disease and you’ve probably tightened down the lid on that product’s coffin.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a new study from the National University of Singapore that claims "people who increased their consumption of red meat during a four-year period were more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes in a subsequent four-year period.”  It wasn’t some relatively shaky statistical analysis of the data, either; it involved about 150,000 people.

Add that health specter to a mini-tsunami of often absurd health claims by vegetarian and vegan special interest groups about the horrors of consuming red meats and you have the beginnings of a major marketing problem.  When Kevin Coupe, editor of and one of the most influential observers of the Supermarket industry, started to question the wisdom behind his personal consumption of red meat, I started hearing the theme from Jaws, that ‘shark week thriller’ of a movie from 1975.  That steady but foreboding percussive beat warned the nation that something terrifying was about to happen.

Writing about the Singapore study, Coupe said, “We've actually had kind of a remarkable shift in our household. Because I'm in my late fifties, I've been trying to eat healthier. (Stories like this just make the movement easier.) Red meat prices are going up. And suddenly, my kids - who not long ago had no interest in eating fish - have started liking things like salmon and swordfish. And so, our diet has started to evolve. We're nowhere near becoming pescetarians, but I have to admit that red meat is becoming less critical to our diets. And I wonder how many other families are making similar shifts, for all sorts of reasons.”

So our herd is as small as it has been since the middle of the 20th century and we can expect international demand for beef to rise sharply as Asian economies continue to prosper.  The lineup of anti-red meat foodies in Western cultures continues to grow, spreading their usually unfounded fears via newspapers, books, radio, TV, magazines and (worst of all) the Internet.

I say ‘worst of all’ because the Internet is the wild and woolly West of information dissemination.  It has no filter, it collects people who devoutly want to believe something, regardless of the facts, and too many people have the “I read it there so it must be true” attitude.  WWW should stand for Wild World Web; no rules, no regs, just an avalanche of snow white nonsense peppered with a few quiet voices of reason.

What Coupe fell victim to and many others are falling in lockstep behind is a non-stop news cycle filling itself with random rumors and occasional factoids about red meat consumption.  Like that Jaws theme, it’s a warning that something is about to happen.  It might not be terrifying but it very well could be unpleasant.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and columnist.

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Wyo  |  June, 19, 2013 at 08:46 PM

Great article and analysis............. One of the things we as producers have been fighting for a very long time is a Checkoff Team that buys into the "Beef is Bad" BS....... IF we were to counter this assault with facts and a positive message that..... Beef is the best thing you can put into your mouth..........rather than........ Eat Beef........Not too much.........small portions........lean portions.....etc. You would not have to be writing such an article.

Mid West  |  June, 19, 2013 at 10:15 PM

I would eat the organic grass fed beef I raise before I would even think of eating fish that has been raised pond and fed what ever you can imagine. The fish are raised in a cesspool of their own waste. My cows are fed organic hay, organic pastures, and drink only fresh spring water. They roam the pastures breathing fresh air. Go your fish. Don't forget too much tuna will give you Mercury poisoning. Have a diet soda while you are at it.

Missouri  |  June, 19, 2013 at 10:17 PM

Lost some respect for Drovers for publishing such a stupid article.

Kansas  |  June, 20, 2013 at 08:22 AM

David, the article was an opinion piece and you are free to have your own opinion. Instead of calling it a 'stupid article,' though, please use your words carefully and explain why you disagree. Backing up your comments with facts or intelligent observations would help.

Iowa  |  June, 20, 2013 at 08:40 AM

Beef supplies are tight, no doubt but that fact is being over-reported in discussions of recent price inflation. We still find plenty of beef in the meat about the price of gold. If the meat case was mobbed at 9am, picked over by 10:30 am and empty by 1pm, then we could honestly say there is a shortage of beef. For now astronomically high retail prices have prevented any physical shortage by scaring consumers away from beef to rediscover pork, chicken and even lamb. Those customers will forevermore apportion their demand for meat and some will virtually stop consuming beef altogether. What is to become of beef? That question should probably have been posed a year or more ago because by now what is done is done. The better question is how many beef producers do we need going forward and how do we prevent glutting the newly downsized market for beef? Just wait until we grow the herd and begin to dump those extra steers into the new market reality. We will suffer some of the most volatile and destructive liveweight prices we have ever encountered. Then what will we be wondering and who will we be blaming?

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