John W. Finley
A few years ago a Western North Dakota newspaper editorial urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service to stop funding research on "yuppie food and nutrition" and instead put that money into research for improving production. As a former owner and operator of a beef cattle operation, I find the editor’s frustration understandable. But as a scientist doing nutrition research, I find the editor’s position to be dead wrong. Today, the hottest method of marketing a food commodity is by it’s nutritional value. Nutrition Sells!
I love the work associated with the cattle industry -- the challenge of producing top quality calves and feeds, of maintaining healthy animals, and of coarse, remaining financially solvent. Times were tough enough in 1980, but today’s cattle prices are only slightly above their peak in the 1970's. While production costs have skyrocketed, profit margins have narrowed leaving the producers squeezed into a corner.
So what is the problem, and how can it be fixed? Certainly, production research that optimizes cattle feeding or reproduction will help producers, but only minimally. Why? Because per capita beef consumption peaked in the 1970's and has plummeted since then.
Why are people eating less beef? The answer is that many people see eating red meat as unhealthy. People associate eating foods such as broccoli or milk with words or phrases such as "healthy", "strong bones" and "protection against cancer or bone disease." Yet beef is associated with "heart disease" or "cholesterol." In other words, beef is seen as something with good taste, but poor health benefits.
So while improving the weight gain of calves may help the beef industry, the benefit will only be marginal. If you want to prevent further declines in beef consumption, the industry needs to convince people that beef has a place in a balanced diet -- as a nutritionist, I know that. Perhaps consumers ate too much beef 30 years ago, and perhaps they consumed too much fat. But those problems have been fixed, and omitting beef entirely from the diet means losing a primary source of certain minerals, vitamins and protein. Proving and publicizing the nutritional benefits of beef is the only way to reverse declining consumption, and thus the only way to really halt the decline of the beef industry.
Here are some facts: functional foods are foods that claim specific health benefits. Total U.S. sales of functional foods in 2001 were $17 billion -- an 8.5% increase over 2000, and the trend is expected to continue. 57% of Americans buy foods to replace some medication and dietary supplement sales in the US were $15 last year. Understanding the health benefits of a particular food is not only good nutritional advice, it is good business for food producers!
So what should producers look for and be aware of? Most importantly - be informed. Not knowing about the hottest new commodity may cost you a potential profit. Canola may have been seen as a fad when it started, but it quickly turned into a winner for those who planted it. . On the other hand, jumping on a commodity with a great word-of-mouth claims, but no proven results may leave you with a crop without a market. Remember emu? Finally many hot commodities start as fads, but stay and become proven producers - remember canola was once a fad.