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Sustainability’s broad nature, limitless definition provides challenge to beef industry and consumers

Denver, Colo. — The beef industry is seeing a growing concern from consumers and customers about beef and what sustainable beef means and represents. 

In response, the beef checkoff has funded a Sustainability Research Project that evaluated beef sustainability with scientific research, keeping consumer concerns in mind. 

Defining sustainability

“Defining what sustainability is and what it isn’t is very challenging,” said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of Sustainability of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 

Stackhouse-Lawson spoke at the International Livestock Congress that took place in Denver, Colo. on Jan. 14 in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show. 

“Sustainability means different things to different people and different things to different stakeholders,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “The beef checkoff has defined sustainability as meeting the growing global demand for beef by balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social ability.”

Researching sustainability

A series of research projects were conducted under the beef checkoff sustainability assessments, which has turn out to be the largest, most comprehensive assessment focusing on both scientific and consumer concerns regarding sustainable food production along all phases of the beef value chain. 

“This assessment allowed us to understand the perceptions of stakeholders and how they define sustainability,” described Stackhouse-Lawson. 

Over 90 stakeholders were interviewed about their definition of sustainability and the perceived problems they had with beef sustainability. From these conversations, it was perceived that sustainability is no longer just a greenhouse gas concern. 

“Today, sustainability spans traceability, animal welfare, nutrition and health, antibiotics and hormone use. Basically if we don’t know what to do with a topic, we throw it under the sustainability umbrella because that is where it is living today,” claimed Stackhouse-Lawson.

When the beef checkoff was devising ways to create a definition for beef sustainability, they had to make it broad enough to encompass all of the concerns about sustainability. 

Responding to customers

“Are we responding to our customers and consumers when it comes to sustainability?” asked Stackhouse-Lawson. “What’s wrong with having to fix it?”

“First, we need to understand the differences in sustainability when it’s between our customers and our consumers,” explained Stackhouse-Lawson. “In the sustainability world, our largest customers of restaurants and retail chains are driving many of the sustainability conversations.”

Stackhouse-Lawson went on to explain that consumers may not directly express wanting more sustainable beef, but they are in need of a sustainable story to tell. 

“Consumers aren’t buying what they purchase based on sustainability reasons. They base their purchasing decisions on, number one, price, followed by quality and then safety,” explained Stackhouse-Lawson. “These are the core pillars why people come back and buy beef. The next concern is responsibility, which leads to sustainability.”

Sustainability is becoming more prevalent in the back of consumers’ minds while they make their purchasing decisions. 

Willingness to pay more

To gather more information, a survey was conducted of 1,800 beef consumers and their thoughts on defining sustainability. 

“Twenty percent of the surveyors said they didn’t know how to define sustainability,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “Of the 80 percent that were left, half of them defined it as the ability to reuse, one-quarter defined it as the amount of time food stays good and the remaining  one-quarter said sustainability is the ability of the food production chain to maintain production.”

“People care about sustainability, and they care about responsibility, but they don’t really know how to define it or what it really means,” described Stackhouse-Lawson. “We have an opportunity to sell more beef by giving them a definition and by talking about the great job producers are doing in the this industry.”

Consumers in the survey were also asked if they would be more willing to pay more for sustainable beef. 

“Sustainable beef was lowest on the radar for consumers,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “What they were willing to pay more for was social sustainability – a product that was produced knowing the workers were safer when bringing that product to their plate.”

Millennials

Stackhouse-Lawson also described the millennial consumer base that is 80 million strong. Millennials are those people who fall between ages 18 and 34, and they are more numerous than the baby boomers.

“We have a real opportunity with the millennials. Why?” asked Stackhouse-Lawson. “Because the millennials want to know more about where their food comes from, and they don’t think anybody is credible.”

“If we tell a millennial consumer a fact about beef sustainability, they will Google it, and they will fact check,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “They don’t believe somebody unless they have a relationship with them.”

The beef industry has developed stories that are scientifically based for consumers that need to check the facts. 

“For the first time, our science might actually count,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “We might be able to tell a story and have the proof and support to back that story up when get fact-checked by the millennials.” 

Stackhouse-Lawson added, “We have a real opportunity here to talk about the transparency in our system and the transparency in food stories we have with sustainability.” 

Madeline Robinson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.