A Roundtable of often at-odds groups gathered to discuss and define sustainable beef? That's like imagining Mitch McConnell inviting Harry Reid to drop by his old Kentucky home this weekend for a friendly Saturday afternoon barbecue. Or Harry actually showing up with a six pack under his arm. Think Mr. and Mrs. Tom Cotton dining with Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama at Ben's Chili Bowl, a Washington, D.C., joint famed for peaceably seating people of wildly varying opinions. Or how about a Final Four not including Kentucky? Just not possible, you say?

But improbable things do happen and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) just might be one of those 'things.' It has one very strong driving force behind it: the future of beef in America. There may be a few odd couples in the mix but they're all strong proponents of a healthy and sustainable market place for beef.   

(Editor's note: The founding members are Adams Land and Cattle, LLC; AgriBeef Co.; Alabama Cattlemen's Association; Beef Cattle Institute, Kansas State University; Beef Marketing Group; Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation; Certified Angus Beef; Colorado Cattlemen's Association; Costco Wholesale Corporation; Dow AgroSciences LLC; Elanco Animal Health; Florida Cattlemen's Association; FPL Food LLC; Global Food Traceability Center; Golden State Foods; Holistic Management International; JBS USA; Kansas Livestock Association; K-COE ISOM; King Ranch® Institute for Ranch Management; Lopez Foods; McDonald's Corporation; Merck Animal Health; Micro Technologies; Minnesota Cattlemen's Association; Missouri Cattlemen's Association; National Beef Packing Co. LLC; National Cattlemen's Beef Association; National Livestock Producers Association; Nebraska Cattlemen's Association; Oregon Cattlemen's Association; Simplot Livestock Company; Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable; Texas A&M AgriLife Research; Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association; The National Grazing Lands Coalition; Texas Cattle Feeders Association; The Nature Conservancy; The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation; Tyson Foods, Inc.; Walmart; World Wildlife Fund; and Zoetis.)

The USRSB is being directed by an interim board of directors headed up by Nicole Johnson-Smith of Cargill Beef Marketing Group. Other board members come from Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Micro Technologies, Merck Animal Health, JBS USA, McDonald's, Walmart, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Noble Foundation and the King Ranch® Institute for Ranch Management.

Immediately after the announcement of the formation of USRSB early this month, I got in touch with the contact person for the press release, Nikki Richardson of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, who volunteered Hoffman as the best person to answer my questions. I wanted to find out what kind of impact the group hoped to have on the beef industry and whether or not their goals were achievable.

Q. The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has assembled an interesting group of businesses and special interest groups. Some of them have been at odds in the past. How will you be able to keep them working together toward the same goal?

A. That is one of the things we’ve been most excited about when forming this group. The topic of beef sustainability is important to many different stakeholders, and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef allows them all to come together for a common purpose – to continuously improve the sustainability of beef in the United States. Though we won’t agree on everything, there will be open and honest discussion while working toward sustainable outcomes for the beef value chain, which is what everyone wants and what this conversation needs.

Q. The Roundtable is starting with 43 members and it's looking for additional partners. Tell me about the current members and who you will be encouraging to join in the coming months?

A. We are very pleased with the diverse group of 43 founding members to date and feel confident that number will continue to grow. Members are made up of producers and producer associations, retail partners, allied industry groups, civil societies and processors. The goal is that the entire beef value chain is well represented within the USRSB, and we want the current founding members to continue spreading the word about this important work with peers in their respective constituencies to help grow membership.

Q. What are the important issues the Roundtable will be debating? Will the recent Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee's suggestion that beef consumption be reduced have an impact?

A. The USRSB will be tackling a number of important issues related to beef sustainability, though I don’t have a clear list of what those will be yet. Currently, the USRSB working groups are moving forward with their respective goals and objectives. They include Sustainability Indicators and Goals for Progress, Verification, and Field Projects. This is a true multi-stakeholder effort, and the work of this group will consider all member perspectives.

Q. USRSB will use the definition of sustainable developed by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Would you talk about that definition and how it will impact your deliberations?

A. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) has laid a tremendous amount of groundwork in the area of beef sustainability. That includes development of Principles and Criteria as well as the definition that we’ll adhere to as the USRSB.

"We define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency and Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community, and Food); Animals (relevant principles: Animal Health and Welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal Health and Welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation)."

Part of GRSB’s focus is to encourage formation of regional groups to implement the principles and criteria in meaningful ways given differences in climate, cattle management and etc. This is what the USRSB aims to do – we know that a one-size fits all approach is simply not sustainable, so we will take what the GRSB developed and add to that with more context-specific elements that are meaningful in the United States.

Q. The press release announcing the formation of USRSB said, "With the establishments of regional multi-stakeholder beef sustainability roundtables in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and now, the United States, it is clear that the international commitment to sustainable beef enjoys tremendous momentum.” In the U.S., though, there has been a bit of a backlash against international commitments. The long and often rancorous wrangling that's led to several losing bouts with the WTO and the hard feelings created with our Canadian and Mexican trading partners is a case in point. How will those problems impact your deliberations?

A. I think that’s why the formation of regional roundtables is so important. An international standard for beef sustainability is unrealistic because there are regional variations in the production systems. Even within the United States, beef is raised differently in Georgia than it is in Nebraska. As the USRSB, we are working specifically on beef production in this country. While we are adhering to the global definition established by the GRSB, the sustainability indicators, verification processes and field projects will focus on U.S. beef production.

Q. John Butler, chief executive officer of USRSB member Beef Marketing Group said, “We stand ready to collaborate in this effort of continuous improvement across the social, economic and environmental aspects of beef production. You agreed, saying research indicates the American people are increasingly looking at the social, economic and environmental issues behind the production of beef. The wild card, though, is politics, which too often shade or distort the discussions about those three issues.  How will the group be able to navigate those problems and reach a workable consensus?

A. The balance of environmental, economic and social aspects of beef sustainability is a priority for the USRSB. That being said, we are well aware there could always be challenges that make this, among other things, difficult to navigate. Again, I think there is tremendous value to the multi-stakeholder makeup of this group. We don’t have to agree on everything, but voices and opinions will be heard, which is a big step in the right direction. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.