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The new BSE reality: Time for government to eat up!

01/08/2005


Despite our best efforts, it appears the U.S. border will continue to remain closed to Canadian cattle for awhile. The New BSE Reality has shown us the only market we can truly rely on is the one we have right here at home. I am not saying we should stop trying to diversify our export markets or give up on the U.S. market. I am emphasizing that the Canadian market has already proven to be our greatest asset - and one we cannot afford to take for granted.

We are justifiably proud Canada is the only country in the world where beef consumption has actually increased following cases of BSE. This vote of confidence by Canadian consumers needs to be earned every day to avoid “consumer beef fatigue.”

The great work undertaken by the Beef Information Center, Alberta Beef Producers Associations and other organizations have already played a key role in helping to boost domestic consumption. There are, however, limits in consumers’ appetite to eat more ground beef.

The New BSE Reality demands Alberta beef producers focus on other key consumers: those served by our own federal and provincial governments. Government institutions serve thousands of meals every day to individuals in prisons, the military, government cafeterias and hospitals. Persuading government to increase the amount of Canadian beef being served would have a positive and immediate impact on increasing our domestic market – a market which now, more than ever, is the key to our industry’s sustainability.

To highlight the potential of this approach, let’s look at prisons and the military.

Approximately 41,000 prisoners are incarcerated in Canadian penitentiaries. If each prisoner in Canada were served ½ pound of beef a day over 350 days, it would result in 7,175,000 pounds of beef being consumed, representing about 16,307 head of cattle annually. Rehabilitation never tasted so good!

And what about “chow time” in the Canadian military? Our military employed approximately 44,500 men and women (not including reservists) as of 2004. If the military served these loyal Canadians 1/2 pound of beef a day over 200 days a year, a total of 4,450,000 pounds of beef would be consumed, which works out to about 10,114 head of cattle annually. What a great way to serve your country!

These scenarios are obviously aggressive. It is also important to remember that some Canadian beef is already served in prisons, and that some inmates and soldiers do not even eat beef. As a proud beef lover myself, I must admit that half a pound of ground beef nearly every day is a little much. My point is simply that we need to look at this opportunity further. Even if my projections are reduced by half, if prisons and the military served Canadian beef more often, about 5,812,500 pounds of beef or 13,210 head of cattle over 30 months of age could be taken out of our system each year. This does not take into account more Canadian beef being served in government cafeterias, hospitals, crown corporations and other public institutions.

Government response to this idea so far has been underwhelming. Current government policy is to outsource to suppliers who provide the best product at the lowest price. We know Canadian beef is the best. Even if it may not always be the lowest price, our government has the power and the responsibility to change the purchase rules. Why not have our Canadian institutions implement a “Buy Canadian” policy for meals in specific areas of need, starting with beef? If the government needs to redirect some of its existing support to make this policy work, so be it. These tax dollars will be well-spent since they will quickly stimulate a domestic market Canadian beef producers have the right to serve.

It’s time for the government to not only put up dollars to support our industry, it’s time for them to step up to the plate by serving Canadian bee more often in the institutions they control.

By Andrew Raphael, Director of Agri-food. Originally published in Alberta Beef (April 2005). For more information on this topic, or for helpful advice, contact Andrew at 604.685.8408.