Cattlemen's Group Promotes Red Meat, Trains Recruits to Win Over Consumers
by Stephanie SimonColorado native Jen Johnson loved raising cattle and eating steak, a lifestyle some of her friends at Princeton University found a bit hard to swallow.
Ms. Johnson tried winning them over with sheer enthusiasm. But she soon realized she needed help persuading her salad-nibbling sorority sisters to order steaks. So she went back to school to get her MBA—Masters of Beef Advocacy.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents beef producers, launched the MBA two years ago. The course trains ranchers, feedlot operators, butchers, chefs—anyone, really, who loves a good, thick rib-eye—in the fine art of promoting and defending red meat.
Nearly 2,000 graduates have completed the program. The cattlemen aim to train at least 20,000 more, in the hope of building a forceful counterweight to the animal-rights advocates who denounce beef production as inhumane, and the vegetarian activists who reject beef consumption as unhealthy.
The advocacy effort comes at a tough time for the beef industry. Beef consumption in the U.S. plunged from a high of 94 pounds a person in 1976 to less than 62 pounds in 2009, according to the American Meat Institute, a trade group representing beef processors.
School districts across the country have adopted "Meatless Mondays" and are dishing out bean burritos in lieu of burgers. And this winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines advising consumers to replace some of the meat in their diet with seafood.
Meanwhile, veggie evangelists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have turned heads with ever-more-racy campaigns, including sending models clad only in strategically placed leaves of lettuce to hand out tofu hot dogs on street corners nationwide.
PETA says its tactics work. Last year, the nonprofit fielded 850,000 requests for "vegetarian starter kits" packed with recipes like Tofu Tamale Pie and testimonials from celebrity supporters like actress Natalie Portman.
"We're winning," said Bruce Friedrich, a PETA vice president.
Not so fast, the MBAs respond.
Beef has its own celebrity backers—actor Matthew McConaughey has done radio spots—but industry strategists decided that the best way to promote the product was to put the men and women who produce beef front and center.
Their goal: convince skeptical consumers that the shrink-wrapped sirloin tips in the supermarket aren't artery-clogging commodities mass-produced on factory farms, but wholesome meals turned out with great care by hard-working families. To that end, MBA students are encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers.
Ranchers are urged to talk about the hours they spend caring for cattle—all those trips to the pasture at 3 a.m. to help a laboring cow give birth. Retailers could mention nutritional facts—that a three-ounce serving of eye-round roast has just slightly more fat than a skinless chicken breast, for example.
Ms. Johnson, 26 years old, has taken to sending email blasts to her friends from Princeton, describing a morning she spent artificially inseminating cows or explaining how grazing helps ranch land thrive. The majority of beef cattle in the U.S. are raised on grass on family-owned ranches before they are sent to feedlots for fattening and then on to the slaughterhouse for processing.
"We can change the dynamic of the discussion going on with the consumer with two phrases: We care and we're capable," Daren Williams, an executive at the cattleman's association, told a recent MBA class in Denver.
But critics of the industry say true transparency about how burgers come to be may backfire.
Constant reminders that a juicy quarter-pounder was once a wobbly-legged, big-eyed calf may put some people "in the mood to have a steak," said Michael Pollan, who has written several books critical of modern beef production. "For others," he said, "it puts them in the mood to become a vegan."
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