Mack Graves is 30 year veteran of the meat business. He did his time on the packing side, serving as President and CEO of Coleman Natural Meats, Inc., interim CEO of Meyer Foods, and CEO, Senior Advisor and Board Member of Panorama Meats. He now speaks nationally and internationally on meat and poultry marketing issues. Because he’s recognized as an expert in the natural and organic meat and poultry industries, industry people tend to listen to him.
He has two well-read editorial bully pulpits, too. He writes a monthly column, “Marketing Trends,” for the North American Meat Institute’s Lean Trimmings newsletter. He also writes a regular blog for Meatingplace. Both give him frequent outlets for his often controversial opinions.
And he has opinions on many things that he’s willing to share, whether or not the business is willing to listen. One of his opinions is the beef industry has some serious issues that it is not handling too well. He decided to outline his thoughts about beef’s shortcomings on his Meatingplace blog. A lot of people responded; some agreed with him, others were just generally disagreeable and offered to walk him to the wood shed to try to knock some sense into his head.
That the beef industry has been suffering through several decades of declining sales is not debatable. It’s a painfully well-documented fact. Lately problems with supply and pricing have disturbed the market. Graves is concerned, too, about the resources wasted by a beef industry civil war.
Never one to keep his powder dry, he agreed to explain himself when I asked him to go a little deeper into the weeds and talk about his ideas. At the risk of setting some serious grassland fires, he agreed.
Q. OK, my pot-stirring friend, you seem to have stimulated every corner of the beef industry with your ideas about how to revive a slowly decaying business. Let's take each of your five topics, one-by-one, and look a little deeper.
Here's a quote from your recent Meatingplace blog: "So, I bluntly say to all industry participants to stop squabbling among yourselves particularly those at the beginning of the cattle-beef continuum—ranchers."
I've observed a lot of industries but few seem to love a good argument more than these guys. Throw an idea at three of them and you'll soon have four different opinions. First, how would you suggest getting them to set down together and 'make nice'?
A. Sitting down and making nice – on the cattle side, the principal antagonists are NCBA and R-CALF. They both aspire to be the cattle rancher’s “mouthpiece” and representative before, first, our government, and last, the beef consuming public. R-CALF is funded by rancher contributions and NCBA in part by checkoff funds which rankles R-CALF.
R-CALF is good at making waves, but does little to advance beef consumption as they are driven by doing whatever it takes to get their members higher cattle returns which is probably why in these times of high cattle prices we haven’t heard much from them lately. NCBA is probably more closely associated the promotional use of checkoff funds thru the state beef councils. The “Beef it’s what’s for dinner” campaign I haven’t seen for some time now, and thank God.
So, how can the two get together and quit “pissing” on one another? This is tough if not impossible with current management - Bill Bullard at R-CALF and the traditions at NCBA. It will take a paradigm shift on the part of both of them. They will have to give more than lip service and shift their focus to the consumer instead of the cattle rancher. Then they will have a common goal and can work together on something. If they can work together on this subject then maybe they can work towards some sort of merger for the common good. But, like most things, egos will be the major obstacles.
The antibiotic and hormone squabble is also a distraction and a detriment to beef consumption. Each side should declare victory and get on with selling beef whether it is in niches or in truckloads. Forget about the arguments over whether antibiotics are causing resistance in human use antibiotics and whether hormones used in cattle don’t amount to more than two blades of grass in a football field as I was once told by an attorney for the then named NCA and get on with marketing beef. The arguments on both sides are a complete waste of time.
Q. The traditional mistrust between ranchers and packers began shortly after the first cattle drive along the Shawnee Trail in the 1840's. What steps can be taken to overcome that problem?
A. Currently, there is an arm’s length transaction bias in the sale of cattle to the packer (or the purchase of cattle by the packer). One solution is the vertical integration of the various disparate parts — seedstock, cow/calf, backgrounder feeder, processor. Now, JBS has started this integration process with ownership of Five Rivers feeders I think, but I could be wrong here.
If the chicken industry is to be used as a model, it was integrated a long time ago. Admittedly, the chicken producers are feudal slaves to the Tysons, Perdues and Pilgrims et al of the world, but the industry is vertically integrated with its concomitant efficiencies, resultant low chicken prices for the retailer-consumer continuum and increasing market share.
Cattle ranchers have sworn they will never become a part of a beef processor, but never is a long time. After this current spate of high cattle prices and high rancher returns (Take a drive around cattle ranching country and observe all the new pickups, 4-wheelers, and tractors and you can believe that cattle ranching is pretty good right now.), the cattle cycle will catch up and, again, woe is the rancher.
The money made at the consumer point of sale is going to have to be passed back up stream, or at least some of it, to ameliorate the current distrust between packer and rancher. How in the world do you do that? Most of the smaller packers are integrated to some degree and are successful in a low margin business, at least those that are surviving. They have been able to attract ranchers with the promise and then fulfillment of a better return that includes part of the margin between the packer and the conduit to the consumer be that retailer or food service distributor or operator. That’s a start. Can the big beef behemoths and entrenched cattle producers replicate this? NO, unless they swallow their pride, admit they are losing market share and do something to change.
Admittedly, these two solutions above show my altruism/naiveté at its highest. It depends on developing a trust and a common goal or foe between the two antagonists or protagonists and trust is the glue that will hold such an alliance together. Just like the Iran-US nuclear talks – Trust, but verify.
Q. The Checkoff just hit a small pothole – Secretary Tom Vilsack's suggestion that a second checkoff be started. It was probably a bluff caused by his frustration with several years of infighting and the consistent refusal to increase that buck-a-head payment that's been the industry standard since the program began.
You're talking about a major overhaul; killing ad campaigns and using the money to "fund a beef industry Czar/Czarina who will lead the return of beef." Would you describe what that person should do to lead the industry back to the center-of-the-plate dominance it enjoyed when it peaked in the mid-twentieth century? Talk to me not just about the duties but the communication techniques required to start the re-emergence of beef.
A. What should the Czar/Czarina do? Leadership! This cattle/beef industry thirsts for leadership, but, sadly, there has been little to rally around. We don’t even have any wannabes, so the “throne” has not been abdicated, it has never been occupied. No one with the skills I will describe below nor the intestinal fortitude to confront and battle within and without the industry has risen to the top to take such an all-encompassing job.
We are in need of what my old first sergeant used to call an HMFIC. I’ll let you figure out the words for each of the letters. This person will be charged with bringing back beef demand to at least the 1980 level and then upward from there. The duties I previously described in my Meatingplace.com blog “Appoint a Czar/Czarina” was to take an individual with chutzpah, balls (literally or figuratively), guts, a zealot for beef, the skills to defuse and defeat all the anti-meat organizations and their leaders and minions, the temerity to ask the big beef boys for money and a lot of it to fund this effort.
We need to take a page from our foes, such as Wayne Pacelle of HSUS. He is driven, smart, well-read, glib and unafraid to let the truth stand in his path to ridding America of animal agriculture. Our Czar/Czarina needs to be just as zealous and maybe even more ruthless. Our guy/gal will need to have all the skills to confront, debate and defuse the Pacelles and Ingrid Newkirks of the anti-meat crowd at every occasion, in every venue, at every opportunity.
This person will need the skills and contacts to enter at the highest levels of any organization that impacts the beef industry and lobby to get something done with each. This person is going to have to interact at the highest levels of the beef industry players, beginning with the big 4, and get them to set aside their competitive juices for the greater good. By setting aside their competitive juices I mean willing to fund the Czar and his/her staff and functions.
Why? Because the checkoff funds are just too tied up in bureaucracy, rules and regulations to be used effectively and although I think they should be a partial source of the funding, there are just too many rules governing checkoff fund use.
Why in the world would any of the beef behemoths agree to fund, in conjunction with their competitors, a person and staff that works for the good of the total industry and not just them? There is my naiveté again. But if just one commits then the Czar/Czarina can shame the others into it.
There is a corollary to the funding needed from the big 4 and that is the marketing commitment for fresh beef branding and marketing at the retail level. These big 4 beef guys have an obligation to support the industry and help drive the sales of all fresh beef. The NCBA and R-CALF, if they can get their act together, have a role to play, too, but it means a dramatic shift in their attitude from the current one of constant defensiveness to one of proactively and effectively marketing beef. The Czar/Czarina will not report to the NCBA, but still carry it imprimatur.
Communication techniques? This needs to be in your face, with a velvet hammer for the direct consumer communication. No more lectures like the “Beef it’s what’s for dinner” ads. Instead, a communication that starts with a ranch and moves through the whole process stopping from time-to-time showing rancher/advocates, not actors, discussing the positive environmental aspects of beef production, on to processing with a candid discussion of humane treatment, moving to the consumption of beef with recipe and food preparation ideas with chefs - not actors - and nutritionists -not actors - on the benefits of beef in the diet emphasizing that beef is good for you.
But, this needs to be much more than a slick communication campaign. This is an education campaign beginning with those who most thirst for knowledge; children, and moving right up thru the grade levels with lesson plans on beef production and consumption including field trips and contests that engage both educators and those to be educated. Additionally, this campaign needs to influence the influencers particularly doctors, dietitians and food editors on the science that supports beef consumption as part of a healthy diet.
There is nothing more powerful than a fact or a number and those who base their livelihood on accumulated knowledge learned thru medical or nutrition education and training will most respect those who can give them a science base for diet recommendations.
Q. The poultry industry took their product from a weekday supermarket loss leader that trailed beef badly to the king of the dinner plate because of the shrewd marketing practices employed by just a few very hungry and very smart industry leaders. You're asking "those big beef behemoths who control 80 percent of the fed beef slaughter" to step up and aggressively promote fresh beef. The inference, of course, is that they've done little to help sell the product. Is that a fair statement? And what would you have them do?
A. Have you seen any effort by the big 4 to advertise or in any way communicate fresh beef to consumers? I haven’t. Oh sure, now they may be dipping their toe in the “consumer communication” water with some advertisements on new further processed beef products enhanced with flavorings and “convenience.” But, as for extolling the virtues of fresh beef, they have collectively left that to the checkoff supported folks.
I mean, seriously, $1 per head every time an animal changes hands is supposed to support a campaign to increase beef consumption and to support the marketing of 17,000,000,000 pounds of beef per year? I was never good at math, but 600,000 head of cattle processed per week in the United States times 52 weeks times 1250 pounds per animal times 63 percent carcass yield times 70 percent meat yield equals 17 billion pounds of beef? It simply can’t be done and hasn’t been done and the drop in per capita consumption and beef demand proves it. So, of course it is fair to say they big boys haven’t done their “fair” share to support the industry. They simply haven’t done any consumer communication.
What are they to do? They need to do two things:
Branding – They need to establish a brand for their fresh beef with all the accoutrements surrounding it, i.e. labeling, packaging, etc. so we no longer have retailers displaying a sea of white foam trays with red meat under a price label. It seems so elementary to me, brands build loyalty and trust. The beef big boys need to take a page from the chicken industry and develop brands that have some meaning.
Communication – As my old company commander used to say, “Get out of the jeep - that’s when the Army still had jeeps - and fight.” The big boys have to step up and fight the battle instead of letting the trade organizations and a few others bleat out their messages for them. They need to lead, follow or get out of the way. So, first, they need to engage the consumer with messages from every possible venue and second, support their industry by funding that Beef Czar/Czarina I spoke of earlier. They have an obligation to not stand, or sit idly by, but engage the anti-meat detractors like HSUS, PETA, etc. They also have an obligation to actively support the industry in total. They do have the money to do so, they just spend it on other things.
Q. If the industry has a black eye, it's because animal welfare groups delight in using undercover videos to repeatedly punch way over their weight. The industry usually responds by questioning the timing and suggesting the editing of those videos is a little suspicious and misleading. From a public relations viewpoint, those are weak defenses. Talk about some of the stronger efforts to enhance the industry's reputation and what more should we be doing?
A. Stronger Efforts – It seems we are always on the defensive and responding to the undercover videos. I mean it’s like trying to answer the question, “Have you stopped beating your dog?” There is no right answer because if you say “yes” that means you used to beat him/her and if you say “no” that means you are still beating him/her. The answer is transparency and getting out there first with videos of the whole process.
The “Glass Walls” project that NAMI nee AMI did is a good first step because it shows in graphic detail what happens in a processing plant. Now, if that is held up as the standard then any undercover video showing something else is an aberration and shame on that plant, but it will be looked on as not the norm if we have been able to convince the public of what the norm is.
What more should we do? Further to these effort, we need to reach back up stream in the cattle-beef continuum and answer questions about how cattle can be an environmental boon rather than a water-consuming disaster. Again, science-based facts presented in consumer-friendly and understandable lingo is important to understanding. The key is to quit preaching to one another and start proselytizing with the consumer by showing them the whole process and ending with how nutritious beef really is.
Q. You parachuted into a minefield when you said the beef industry should sit down with the enemy and share a friendly cup of tea. You suggested pulling up a chair and debating the anti-meat crowd using nothing more than science and well-constructed consumer research. Notwithstanding that some of these people are nuts and own Ph.D's in professional rabble-rousing, are you confident that science and hard data can really overcome emotional appeals and pictures of sad-eyed kittens?
A. Yes, I am convinced that well-constructed arguments presented by knowledgeable spokespersons will overcome the doe-eyed kitten appeal to those who matter; potential beef consumers. It won’t resonate with those to whom their mind is already made up and facts will only confuse them but not sway them. When I say “well-constructed arguments,” I mean arguments that are more than just “we don’t do that,” but ones based on the science. Nina Teicholz in her book The Big Fat Surprise documented how science is on the side of beef consumption and we can use that science for the arguments of the beef production process.
Beef really is a nutritious food fit for human consumption. And, the only way to get it to the consumer to understand is to show the process we go thru turning a live animal into a nutritious food. It ain’t necessarily pretty but it is safe, humane and necessary. Humans have been consuming animal proteins in various forms for thousands of years. The animals are not enslaved, they lead a good life, but they are destined to become a human food, no ifs ands or buts.
Q. Last question: Your call to action asked for a leader to step forward who can drive this moribund beef industry back to its just levels. A good look at the leaders of the past shows no shortage of great minds and skillful executives but who are the brightest lights today? Is it reasonable to expect that there is one man or one woman with enough talent and charisma to get the job done?
A. We should choose someone who may be 50 percent of the job right now but can rally support and gain the other 50 percent. This is not an old meat head, but an articulate person, preferably a woman. The Amazing Meat video that NAMI developed features one woman, Suzy Strausburger, doing a very good job of showing a consumer in the meat department of a retail store the virtues of eating meat and 29 other vignettes of corpulent, white, meat executives trying to be disarmingly funny telling a story about the benefits of meat and their processes and companies. I just don’t get it.
At least 50 percent of the consuming public is women with 10 to 12 percent of them African-American and another 10-12 percent Hispanic, but not a black or brown face was in the video. The brightest light I am talking about has a visceral belief in beef and its benefits, so it has to be someone from the industry. They have to be able to command respect and get the disparate parties to believe and pony up the funding support.
Committees don’t really get anything meaningful done in a timely fashion, but a human being with the support of the industry can jaw-bone her way to successful results. So, yes, one person can get this job done, in fact only one person can get it done. Of course, industry support, a staff and funds to do the job are necessary handmaidens to success.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.