Telling the beef production chain story to McDonald’s execs and franchise owners
April 30, 2018
The Beef Marketing Group, a cooperative of 18 cattle feeders in Kansas and Nebraska, works together to market cattle with a focus on value- added programs and earning cattle producers premiums for their product.
Always end-user focused, the group invests time in listening to consumers to best tailor their products to consumer demand, ultimately better serving each stop along the production chain.
To that end, all 18 cooperative yards participate in Progressive Beef, a third-party verification program. As part of that program, the doors to the operations are opened to visitors to not only showcase cattle feeding done well but to have the opportunity to meet with end users. It is the cooperative's involvement in Progressive Beef, and also in the Sustainability Project, that led Heather Donley to Orlando, Fla., to talk beef with an international gathering of McDonald's executives and franchise owners.
Donley, BMG's director of quality assurance, Ellsworth, Kan., said the opportunity to attend the gathering was fabulous and unique. Aptly named the Worldwide Convention, McDonald's executives and owners gather in Orlando every two years and the group is made up of owners from across the globe. Some of the franchise owners Donley spoke to hailed from Europe, Asia, Japan, as well as all across the Americas. Across the board, she said their commitment to technology, training and food safety was impressive.
"We like to listen to them and answer their questions and hear which issues they're facing," Donley said. "It helps us to add to our system and make sure they are getting what they need. The beef industry is segmented but at the end of the day, we're all on the same team."
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The beef sustainability booth is where attendees could visit Donley and other representatives of the worldwide beef industry. The booth included a 360-degree video of the beef production cycle and producers were on hand to answer any questions.
"It told the story from the ranch all the way to the processor," she said. "It had the packer, it had the patties for the hamburgers. It was amazing."
Those in the booth represented ranches from all over the world including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Ireland and New Zealand. Donley said it was her first experience speaking in depth to ranchers from other countries and many of the challenges are universal.
"We all have different issues especially in terms of weather and which feedstuffs are available," she said. "Really, a lot of the challenges are very similar regardless of the country you live in."
The Irish producer seemed to receive plentiful or even excessive rain, which Donley said is a departure from so many U.S. producers who battle dry and drought conditions regularly. In speaking to other producers, Donley said the interaction with consumers, especially through social media, was a central topic. Many of the producers are members of the generations who grew up with social media and she said their level of comfort in posting information is high.
"We are a feed yard which is not always as easy to talk about on social media," she said. "Everybody loves the ranch with the green grass and the cows and the horses and the families. For us, we're large but we're a larger family and the family members grew up in the feed yard with the same passion as on the cow calf side."
Many of the questions posed to the producers on hand were basic but integral to the understanding of the industry from a consumer's point of view. Donley said the video included photos of loaders at feed yards batching feed and she fielded questions regarding what the ration consisted of. Some visitors asked what the cattle eat on the ranch when the grass is brown and questions about processing were also popular, especially as McDonald's prepares to introduce a fresh hamburger patty.
PRODUCTION AND SUSTAINABILITY
In addition to the booth, Donley was part of a listening session with the entire McDonald's executive team. The beef experts included ranchers, Donley representing both ranchers and feeders, and other stops on the production cycle. Questions about production methods and sustainability were among the most popular as attendees, like many consumers, sought transparency from the industry.
"People want to know you're doing the right thing," she said.
Transparency and sustainability are paramount to the Progressive Beef program that all yards in the Beef Marketing Group participate in. As part of the third-party verification program, bi-yearly audits are performed to ensure cattle are receiving good care to produce safe and healthy beef. Each feed yard is scored through an unannounced internal audit performed by a quality assurance team, the other is a third-party audit conducted by a USDA approved independent auditing company. The score earned is based upon the verification that the feed yard is doing as they say they are. This includes cattle handling and daily care; cattle home pen living conditions; cattle water tank cleanliness; cattle feed nutrition; handling and delivery that follows developed principles for safety; antibiotic use, traceability, and withdrawal records; employee safety guidelines; sustainability practices and measurement; and training and knowledge.
The Sustainability Project is a collaboration between the Beef Marketing Group, Tyson Fresh Meats, Noble Research Institute, Golden State Foods and McDonalds to quantify metrics from the ranch through the process of delivering products to the end consumer to learn and understand how each segment can improve and be a better part of the whole system. According to the group's website, the program encourages and promotes continuous improvement through the identification of sustainability indicators; recognizing verification methodologies; generating field project data to test sustainability concepts; providing a forum for open discussion, information exchange, and program development; and offering stakeholders an equal opportunity through membership participation. Members are comprised of producers, allied industry members, processors, retail organizations, and civil society with a stake in the beef value chain. ❖
— Spencer Gabel is a freelance writer from Wiggins, Colo., where she and her family raise cattle and show goats. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Rachel Spencer Media.