Is this the mother of all beef roundtables?

Most folks in the agriculture industry would agree that the undisputed king of politicized food commodities has to be beef.

Ahead of the Heard

Most folks in the agriculture industry would agree that the undisputed king of politicized food commodities has to be beef. Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some commentary, rumour or insinuation about the production or consumption of beef somewhere in the world. There are few green lobby groups that don’t engage in outrageous fearmongering about cattle and beef at one time or another. It’s so pervasive that even some retailers and fast food chains use cattle production issues as part of their marketing campaigns. To counter bad PR those involved in the cattle and beef business have spent millions trying to fend of negative allegations and to polish their image as nice people, producing a good food product in an environmentally accepted manner.

Part of the process over the years has been for the industry to create countless committees, advisory councils, consultative bodies and the ubiquitous roundtable discussion groups. The idea always is to make them inclusive meaning everyone in the supply-chain should be involved. In the cattle and beef business that’s always a difficult exercise because the different sectors have a built-in tension amongst themselves as many are buyers, sellers and competitors between each other. It’s the continuing criticism of the cattle and beef industry by third parties that serves as the common denominator that drives them to work together. That’s now culminated in the creation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Yes it’s another roundtable, but this one includes many of the global big players like JBS, Cargill, McDonalds, Elanco and a host of other heavy hitters. It does seem rather encouraging seeing all the big global stakeholders getting involved in defending the industry against global based green and animal rights lobby groups. The attitude in the past seemed to be that each sector of industry was expected to defend themselves on a local basis. That saw primary producers carrying the PR load, whilst processors and retailers tried to lie low and out of the crossfire.

One can appreciate that it took considerable effort to get so many global players and national cattle producer organizations together for a coalition of the willing. One hopes that this new global entity might have some impact in confronting the industry’s critics, but it seems that will be a long difficult process if its first steps are any indication. The first matter that the new group had to confront was defining the word “sustainability.” That word can be a stumbling block because its defined and accepted definitions never seem to be the same depending on the circumstance and ideology or agenda of the entity using the word. For instance green lobby groups connect the word sustainability to natural, organic, local, free range, non-gmo, vegetarian etc.. That’s not the dictionary definition, but it has now become the politically accepted definition to many consumers. Clearly the GRSB needed to make its own definition if the word was going to be central to their mandate. But that created a perception nightmare as different stakeholders from various parts of the world had their own idea as to what “sustainable beef” meant to them and their interests.

After much consultation the GRSB came up with a draft version of their definition as follows:

“We define sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency & Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community and Food); Animals (relevant principle: Animal health and welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal health and welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation).”

Attached to the draft definition were 36 criteria points and principles.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more cumbersome definition to a word. But it would not be unusual to see this result for an entity that represents so many diverse global perceptions – in effect it tries to be everything to everybody. To add to the discourse or confusion the GRSB is holding a global conference in November in Brazil to – you guessed it – discuss the draft definition of “sustainable beef”. If other such international talk festivals are any indication progress may not be quick and decisive. One can only hope that this mother of all beef roundtables will be able to set some achievable goals that actually advocate for the industry and not be another bureaucratic monster that talks a lot but does very little. More next time.


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