Russia reminds the USA that choice matters

The USDA has announced that it will support a new certification system for US livestock that guarantees that meat produced under this standard will never have been fed beta agonists (growth hormones) such as ractopamine.  Companies can meet the requirements of the “Never Fed Beta Agonists” marketing claim under either a USDA Process Verified Program (PVP) or the USDA Quality System Assessment (QSA) Program. Beef and pigmeat and meat products derived from animals that comply with the rules of the Never Fed Beta Agonists standard will be able to offer products under a labelling claim that the meat is derived from animals that were never fed beta agonists and is free of beta agonist residues.

For those of us who live in the Old World (as opposed to the New World) this is a welcome development and, perhaps cruelly, we might say that the USA’s meat industry is now entering the Real World of meat and food production. But this is not a time to gloat. Rather, it’s time to learn from this experience and apply any lessons to future decisions about future production practices. The key lesson is that consumer choice matters (even if you think the customer’s choice is nuts).

The arguments about the application of technology to agriculture and food production go back some way. We have had spats between Europe and the USA about the hormones used in meat and dairy production for decades. GM in maize and soya crops is part of the same “problem” set.  I have no axe to grind on these issues and am generally in favour of productivity-enhancing innovations. But…. it’s the customer’s decision to buy/not buy and, it seems to me, that the US farm industry’s attitude in the past was “one size fits all” i.e. we are using growth hormones and you will just have to accept that as a customer. Often an “expert” in a white coat was used to support this policy. These historical disagreements with Europe didn’t change attitudes on either side of the Atlantic over a long period but now it appears that the USDA is looking for a way for the US meat industry to offer customers a choice on growth hormones via the new certification and labelling system.

Why introduce a new system now? If the US had offered this option years ago it would have made a huge difference to the way their agri-industry was seen by the Europeans.

We can thank the Russians (and to a lesser extent, the Chinese) for this change. When US meat exports were a relatively small proportion of total sales and the US had a broader mix of export products, what overseas customers wanted or didn’t want was immaterial.  And perhaps the US negotiators didn’t mind a fight with the Europeans. But now with the Russian and Chinese markets promising serious growth in meat import demand and the prospect of entry into Europe under the terms of a US-EU trade deal, what the customer wants is suddenly very relevant.  US exporters have got the message – the (overseas) customer has a voice, and some leverage. Export-hungry meat packers and the USDA are now falling over themselves to construct and apply a ractopamine-free supply chain for their pork supplies. And this is all because the Russians have effectively implemented a ban on ractopamine/beta agonist residues in their meat imports this year. Ironically, the country that produced an economic system that did not offer choice is forcing the country with an economy that claims to offer infinite choice and opportunity, to give consumers a real choice.  

Why should US pork producers be thankful? Well, if you believe, like me, that one size doesn’t fit all it’s good to see that the customer still has a voice and that producers will listen (eventually). And, in this world of hi-tech, multi-dimensional consumers this belated recognition of customers’ desires can only be positive for farmers and meat producers. Technology gives customers a very loud voice these days. That’s the real world we live in – and, in the years ahead, I can see many more (USDA) certification systems being devised to enable these customer voices to be heard.

Dr John Strak, Editor Whole Hog