As a meat scientist for Zoetis, Brad Morgan sees a lot of industry innovations first hand. Interacting with the public, including fellow employees at the animal health company and his own family, he sees the need for education.
In the most recent National Beef Quality Audit nearly every segment—from feeders and packers to retailers and allied industry—named lack of transparency among the top three weaknesses of the U.S. cattle industry.
"Do consumers like technology?" he asked. "Not really. Everyone likes $2 gas and a dollar loaf of bread though."
The statistics are familiar. By 2050 we're going to have to produce twice as much food and 70% of that will need to come from gains in efficiency due to technology.
Morgan explained it's usually a lack of knowledge of technology, not the practice itself that causes consumer concern. The scientist remembers asking his wife if she would feed their children beef that had been treated with organic acid to kill E. coli. When she answered, one word in his question stuck out to her.
"When she hears 'acid,' what does she think about? That battery in your car," he said. Holes in clothes lead to visions of holes in a stomach. But, Morgan said, his wife was more receptive to the idea of treating beef with a 2% vinegar mixture – an organic acid.
"This was a defining moment for me," he said. "We really have to explain to people why we want to use technology."
Consumers still want beef >>
For example, in the packing plant it takes 400 gallons of water per beef carcass, which might sound like a lot to the average consumer.
"Ninety percent of it is for sanitation and cleanup," Morgan said, and 100% of what goes in also comes out. He says most of the water is cleaner coming out of the plant than when it went in, because plants spend a lot of money on water treatment.
Zoetis also is working on vaccines and other ways to reduce the risk of pathogens like E. Coli and Salmonella in the first place. Researchers are down to the level of tracing bacteria in the gastro-intestinal tract in a common fly.
Consumer demand continues
Despite being unsure of technology used to prevent illness and ensure product safety, consumers are still demanding prime-quality meat.
In 2011, USDA Prime and branded beef products accounted for 11% of the sales mix, compared to 15% today. Using an adjusted price base, carcass value increased $90 during that timeframe.
"That shows you the demand is there," Morgan explained. Premium grinds, whole muscles or unique blends processed into ground beef, also represent a growing category.
"It's pretty romantic to have a gourmet hamburger now," Morgan said, but he doesn't think cattle should be fed strictly for a ground beef market. Current feed prices encourage increased days on feed, and more of the carcass value comes from end meats.
"If you look at the amount of pounds [of ground beef] sold, it's 58% of the carcass, but if you look at dollars it only adds up to 38%," he said.
Morgan spoke as part of the Feeding Quality Forum in Kearney, Neb., and Amarillo, Texas, last month.
Source: Miranda Reiman/Certified Angus Beef