Better Beef Marketing is needed

Better Beef Marketing is needed
Will Verboven - 9, 2003

Hope returned to the Canadian beef industry with the announcement that the USA would allow certain cuts of Canadian beef to re-enter their market after September 1st. I suppose beggars can't be choosy, but it was all too surreal, with American officials making solemn pronouncements about the need to protect their food supply and American cattle from any BSE infection from Canada.

That's in the face of about 500,000 head of Canadian cattle already in the US that are in various stages of being fattened, processed and consumed by American citizens. Apparently, merely being on US soil makes these Canadian cattle immune to BSE.

The US Secretary of Agriculture earnestly tried to make one believe that this decision was based on science and a thorough investigation process. What a coincidence that her announcement coincided with a US/Japan agreement on verifying that US beef exports would be Canadian-free by September 1st.

Let's face it science and trade politics have never been compatible - particularly in agriculture. That's why Canada needs to set its own course in beef exports, so that the US or Japan can't hold the fate of this vital industry to ransom.

Rather than rushing to return to the status quo, this terrible economic and trade lesson should serve as an impetus for radical change to Canadian beef production and marketing. If the fate of the beef industry hangs on exports, then one reality needs to be truly accepted. That being; the customer is always right if you want their business.

In the beef trade, Canada has usually been a follower and that has meant lost customers. For instance, Canada follows the US position on the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in beef production. That has locked Canada out of European markets which restrict such growth promotants.

What is real is that after the BSE nightmare, Canadian beef export marketing will never be the same. Many offshore customers remain suspicious. The time to offer a better Canadian beef product, whether real or perceived, seems to be opportune and desperately needed.

To do that the Canadian beef industry needs to take some extraordinary steps that may not be "science-based," but are instead market and consumer based - which in the end is all that really matters.

For example, BSE testing all cattle over 30 months and eliminating the use of growth promoting hormones and antibiotics in beef production may not make any economic, science or health sense. But it will radically change the image of Canadian beef in the eyes of consumers - particularly if it's promoted in export markets.

Such a marketing approach would cause Canadian beef to be perceived as being a better and safer product. Does it imply that it is better than American beef - hopefully it will - to the benefit of Canadian beef exports.

The US has shown that they are quite prepared to favour trade politics over science to protect their markets. The Canadian beef industry needs to play that game better and use every marketing angle, real or perceived, to their advantage.

It will take some fortitude, but after this economic disaster, anything should be possible. Radical production and marketing change may just be the long term salvation for Canadian beef exports.