For years, cattle industry leaders overlooked an opportunity to build credibility with consumers by failing to more broadly promote and publicize the industry's voluntary self-help improvement program known as Beef Quality Assurance. Now that's changing, as the industry re-positions it to serve as a consumer-facing initiative.
BQA is a best management practices curriculum, created by cattlemen for cattlemen, backed by the latest science and supported by university research and extension specialists nationwide.
Josh White, executive director of producer education for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, recalls growing up on a ranch in the early days of the program, learning about correct injection sites and drug withdrawals. He said it has been gratifying to see the program grow and broaden, to where it now includes two of the hottest topics with consumers, animal welfare and environmental sustainability, as it continues to evolve to remain on the cutting edge of new research and priorities.
"Our customers have really begun to embrace Beef Quality Assurance," echoed Trey Patterson, vice chair of the advisory committee and a rancher from Wyoming during a recent program update held via webinar.
"I don't think there's a better time for us to ease the minds of our consumers that we have the training and protocols in place to put high quality beef on their tables, and do it while addressing their concerns about how the animals are handled," he added. "The thing about BQA is, there's no gimmicks. It's just science-based practices."
Kim Brackett, an Idaho rancher who chairs the BQA advisory committee, said introducing BQA directly to consumers came about through a combination of responding to changing consumer preferences and newly gained insight into its appeal with a broader audience. Consumer tracking research shows fully 70 percent of consumers consider how food is raised when making purchases, but only 27 percent claim to know much or anything about how beef is produced. It also shows their number one concern is animal welfare, according to Brackett.
Meanwhile, consumer focus groups indicate that among consumers who are exposed to information about BQA, their perception of beef production improves by 26 percentage points.
Season Solorio, NCBA's senior executive director for brand marketing, explained that BQA videos are now being integrated into several beef marketing campaigns, including the long running "Beef Its Whats for Dinner" campaign. While the tagline is 30 years old, it was re-launched in 2017 with a major overhaul of the website, recipes and consumer resources.
"Since then, we've had 32 million visits to that website, which represents a 90 percent increase in website traffic," she said.
Showcasing the BQA program is truly changing consumer perceptions, she said, noting that the level of consumers who believe beef is raised humanely and responsibly has climbed in response to it, she said.
In addition, a series of ads with the tagline, "Nicely done, beef," are being used to directly refute common misconceptions about beef's environmental footprint, she added.
Sarah Reece, NCBA's senior director of influencer engagement, said she is reaching out to chefs directly to educate them on the BQA campaign. Using a platform called Chefs Roll, a food media and events planning company, the campaign is reaching chefs with videos that bring farmers and ranchers together with popular chefs as they get a firsthand look at what goes into producing beef. The first two videos were shot in Arizona and at a feedlot in Oklahoma.
Julie Herman, a veterinarian and Colorado State graduate who is originally from northeastern Colorado, announced that, as of this summer, BQA's animal welfare component has been third-party certified as meeting the stringent standards of the OIE, the world organization for animal health.
Despite limitations on public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, the BQA program is still growing rapidly, thanks to online training modules that were introduced in early 2017, reported Jolee Fitzsimons, another northeastern Colorado native who serves as producer education training and events manager for NCBA.
More than 100,000 cattle producers have now been certified through the online learning system, with the number doubling over the past year.
Increasingly, BQA is simply becoming a part of doing business, as many of the largest packers have started to require it of suppliers and livestock haulers.
While this has left a bad taste with some producers, others see it as a reflection of the credibility and success established by the proactive, industry-driven educational platform.
BQA is also closely interwoven into the cattle industry's new long-range plan, introduced at NCBA's summer business meeting in Denver in July.
According to Brackett, a big component of the plan is "growing consumer trust in beef production."
A diverse group of cattle industry leaders forged the plan by taking into consideration an extensive list of existing opportunities and challenges, according to Brackett, who chaired the long range planning task force. Among them: rising consumer interest in how beef is raised and its impact on the environment; trends in beef exports; market volatility; traceability; competition from cell-cultured and plant based products; influence by activists; and long term changes in consumer behavior likely to result from the current pandemic.