Forcing the hand that feeds them
A report released by a number of groups with anti-agriculture agendas gave “failing grades” to fast food restaurants that don’t post a public statement opposing antibiotic use in livestock production. It named restaurants as the group most poised and able to influence production practices on farms and ranches, attempting to force the hands of those down the value chain.
These reports, according to John Robinson, vice president, membership and communications, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, are all aimed at achieving an agenda.
“It’s unfortunate that people’s choices are being dictated or limited by activist group pressure,” Robinson said.
Food service and agriculture are closely related within the industry, each dependent upon the other to some extent. Robinson said answering consumers’ questions and creating unity rather than division is agriculture’s best course of action.
“We can provide consumers with choices without attacking other production systems and methods because they’re all valid and all of this food, this protein is necessary,” he said. “We have a lack of protein in the world and there’s a place for all of it — pork, poultry and beef.”
While activists make up a small percentage of consumers, their numbers, he said, are still greater by a large margin than the population of beef producers. Their passion for their stance can also sway those in food service or retail.
“The fact of the matter is nobody wants a bunch of picketers with lettuce leaf costumes outside their restaurant,” he said. “There’s always a perception concern when it comes to having people protest your product. It’s easy for them to make decisions about the supply chain based on activist pressure.”
Whether the negative press is on Twitter or in the form of lettuce-laden picketers, once restaurants bend to the activist pressure, Robinson said the activists are then emboldened to continue to bully that sector to meet their end.
“It becomes a rapidly increasing spiral and we get into this decision-making process that isn’t necessarily based on fact or sound science to get where we are today,” he said.
TRUTH IN ADVERTISING?
Another concern is the truth in marketing in restaurants touting various labels. While it is likely a small percentage, the ability to dishonestly serve protein under the guise of one label or another is there. Niche market products bearing various labels come with a higher price tag, leaving the temptation front and center.
“A false label claim that leads to a good eating experience perpetuates that mistruth,” he said. “That’s a slippery slope for everybody in the industry including the people who are out there doing it.”
Robinson said inquiring about the sourcing of the labeled protein is appropriate and many restaurants have cultivated relationships with producers, increasing consumer confidence. Labeling, though, Robinson said, can also cause consumer confusion. This produces essentially no benefit to anyone in the industry as he said most American consumers still purchase protein based on package price, making us a ground beef nation.
When it comes to the other side of the plate, Chef Jason Morse has found his place teaching consumers not only about cooking but the producers behind the protein, refusing to bend to the label pressure. Morse is the barbecue spokesman for Ace Hardware and the executive chef and co-owner of 5280 Culinary Beef.
Morse said labels touting claims like grass fed or antibiotic free merely prey on consumers’ lack of understanding.
“As they really read, they realize they’re being duped because they’re not allowed to use hormones so why are they claiming hormone free?” he said.
Morse said the grass-fed claim is one he sees from his side of the plate when it comes to beef.
“They’re crazy over grass-fed but guess what,” he said. “One hundred percent of beef raised is grass-fed then 99 percent of them are finished on grain and silage to make them juicy and delicious, and well-marbled like consumers demand.”
Morse said he sees few cuts of beef marketed as grass-fed and finished. Consumers, he said, feel good about the grass-fed label but want the positive eating experience found in grain finished beef. According to the North American Meat Institute, only 5 percent of grass-fed U.S. cattle remain on pasture their entire lives.
When Morse and rancher Luke Arnold partnered to form 5280 Culinary Beef, sourcing Hereford beef and marketing to high-end chefs, Morse knew he wanted to be honest with consumers and ensure chefs preparing his beef knew the correct details about the beef to share with diners. The company’s beef labeling is honest about being pastured and raised on Colorado grass and hays but also clear about being grain finished for over 60 days, which he said is the key to quality.
“I tell people that I grain finish because that’s what makes this animal delicious,” he said.
While teaching barbecue techniques to consumers from all-across the country for Ace Hardware, Morse is also able to advocate for protein producers. He said he frequently dispels mistruths about ranchers “pumping their cattle full of antibiotics,” hormone use and confusion-causing labels.
Morse said misleading and confusing labels perpetuate people’s lack of knowledge and he encourages consumers to ask questions of the chef, as Morse said it is a responsibility of the chef to understand the food he serves to customers.
“I don’t think chefs or restaurateurs are liars,” he said. “I would hate to think they are. I think everyone gets so caught up in the labels, grass-fed, grass-fed, grass-fed, that the chef wants to serve it, the restauranteur wants to serve it, and the salesperson walks in, sells them what they want and thinks it satisfies everyone’s wants and no one knows what questions to ask.” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.