Make Beef, Not Price, the Centerpiece of Canadian Food Quality

When I buy beef from my neighbourhood butcher in Guelph, I don’t chisel him on price. He sells excellent beef, and he and his suppliers deserve decent money for connecting with the cattle farmers who produce it.

If I have to cut corners, I’ll save on some other part of the meal — for example, the libations. I’d rather drink cheap wine than eat cheap beef.

To me – and a lot of other beef fans, I suspect — quality is worth it. And I believe given the rising price of beef, the industry needs to unapologetically tell Canadians right now that quality has its price, and that Canadian beef is at the top of its game.

Here’s why. Canadians already believe in this country’s beef. Remember 2003, as Canadians rallied behind the beef industry like never before, when BSE appeared and the chips were down.

So, historically, the support’s there. And certainly, the beef industry already positions itself as having quality products, anyway. I’m not the first person to suggest the emphasis on quality.

But now, a different kind of support is needed from consumers, as well as a new kind of effort from farmers.

We’re told elsewhere on RealAgriculture, in conversation with the George Morris Centre, that because margins are tight and the wholesale price of beef is high, grocery stores are unlikely to feature beef as loss leaders this barbeque season.

No more juicy steak cover photos. No more this-week-only specials.

Profile-wise, that could be a problem. The centre says flyers can move up to 10 times the volume of a regularly priced beef item. They’ve become a popular part of our grocery-buying culture.

But their contents are mostly based on price, not quality or availability.

Ask yourself this: If beef (or any other livestock protein) makes the front page of a flyer because of price rather than quality, are farmers really well served?

I don’t think so.

Any bargain beef that ends up on consumers’ plates is also quality stuff, sure. But the fact is that high beef prices are here for at least 2014. Even if Canadian farmers and ranchers wanted to bring those prices down by increasing production, they cannot create an overnight supply of beef.

So here’s the opportunity: why not move the needle further towards quality, and away from price? Take a chapter from the local food movement, which sells on quality and has revolutionized a significant part of the food sector.

Could the beef sector do the same? Isn’t it local food too? Would consumers respond?

The causes of high prices are not hard for consumers to understand: Basic supply and demand, production costs (particularly feed) and the time needed to respond to market signals. It takes up to three years for supply to catch up to demand when herd numbers are depleted.

But none of those points speak to quality. They’re explanations for higher prices.

And I don’t think that’s what people want to hear. They want farmers to say it costs more because it’s worth it, then be able to prove it with their products.

Let the barbeque be the judge.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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