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A while back, I came across an article from Food Processing Magazine, an information source for food and beverage manufacturers. The author said, “It is true that consumers are changing. They want more of this and less of that. As we all get involved with convenience, health, value, etc., we seem to forget that the real thing consumers are looking for is not convenient food, but tasty food that is convenient, tasty food that is perceived as healthy, or tasty food at a great price. They want all of these things, plus the best tasting food that you can possibly make.”

The three main groups of people who purchase food today are millennials, moms and foodies. I’m not too sure what a foodie looks like or is – I need to ask Lee Pitts because he would know – but they buy food, so we need to pay attention to them.

Studies have shown that those three main groups, when shopping for meat and poultry, want free-range and organically-raised. I’m not saying that is the case for Wyoming shoppers, but it’s the trend in the big cities where there is absolutely no concept of agriculture. Those who live in the western states see cattle and sheep out on the range when traveling around, so they get a good look at how they are raised. But what makes today different is, most consumers want to be sure that the animal their meat is from was treated right during its life. But they also want it to be tasty. In the food business, most of the really good-tasting foods often have the highest margins.

The article said, “Consumers are increasingly selecting foods that are manufactured with the ‘less is more’ approach. That is, with fewer ingredients and a label that is simple to read, including ingredients that one may find in their own home pantry. This naturally results in color, texture and taste that is much closer to ‘home-cooked’ in products.”

As far as meat products or protein processing, the article states that cooking may be an art, but meat and poultry processing is a science. Fortunately for food companies, there’s a support network that’s advancing the science.

One example of the science is software improvements. For example, how does one make meatballs or hamburger all the same? This is done with dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).

The article stated, in the past, visual evaluation of the fat-to-lean content of ground beef was the traditional method used in industry. Depending on the skill of the person eyeballing the meat, visual lean estimates might be off five percent. Recently, DEXA has carved out a niche with packinghouses by delivering a precise chemical lean measure for an entire batch of beef trim while also performing inspection duties. The precision is important to avoid penalties assessed by grinders who receive trim with too much fat or, alternatively, from including too much lean in a shipment and, therefore, giving away too much meat or protein.

Meat or animal protein, in their traditional cuts and forms, has always been expensive to produce, and more often than in the past, the cost is finding its way to food processors and then on to the consumer. Keeping costs down helps the producer in the hills and feedlots.   

These days, as all in agriculture realize, exports are very important. Whether it is beef, grains, sugar or vegetables, exports really help the markets. We’ve talked a lot about exports in this column in the past few months, and I view exports as very important to our ag economy.

According to CattleFax, America exports around 2.5 billion pounds of beef and beef offal to other markets around the world every year, and that figure will only go up as populations and the standard of living increase worldwide.

The 500-pound gorilla in the room is trade agreements. Some are uneasy with President Trump over trade agreements, as he has signaled that he likes bilateral trade agreements instead of the big trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In today’s world, a bilateral trade agreement may be easier to agree on, with just two countries involved, but there are some huge trading partners out there.

Not many of us are aware of this, but India is the largest beef trade exporter in the world. One has to use the word “beef” cautiously in this case, as they’re not marketing good beef. Rather, India exports water buffalo, and water buffalo just doesn’t compete with America’s good beef.

In 2016, according to CattleFax, India, Brazil and Australia, all exported more beef than the United States, with New Zealand next in line. All of these countries export beef to other countries that the United States also wants to sell to, so we see competition. We do have an advantage over the other countries in our quality of beef, but if all those millions of people are satisfied with water buffalo, we’re up against that issue, too.

If we just take Hong Kong, for instance, with its millions of residents, 55 percent of their beef comes from Brazil and only 20 percent from America. Australia and New Zealand follow, exporting 3.6 billion pounds of beef to Hong Kong. Just think, if the U.S. could increase exports just to Hong Kong by 10 or 20 percent, how many pounds of beef would that be? The number of people in these Asian countries is huge, and hopefully, they are tired of duck, chicken, fish and, more importantly, water buffalo.

Now we are hearing that Japan wants to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, maybe without the U.S. That would be terrible for the U.S. but good for Japan. How bad it will be for the U.S. is something only time will tell. That also depends on how soon we get our trade agreement finalized with Japan.

When President Trump met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping a while back, they agreed to a 100-day plan for trade talks. That is a sign Washington wants some fast results. Japan and their 11-member TPP will have a hard time beating that time frame, or we at least hope so.

Japan aims to have TPP ministers meet in Vietnam in late May to agree on how to make the revamped TPP work without the U.S. It is important also to bring in Vietnam and Malaysia into their group, so we can only hope they take their time.

At some point, traceability in our cattle will be an issue, especially with China. I wonder how traceable those water buffalo from India are?

A couple weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping met President Trump at Trump’s Florida estate in Palm Beach. As imagined, a number of topics were discussed. Of course, the top topic was North Korea, but somewhere in the talks, getting China to lift the trade barriers and allow American beef in the country was discussed. As it turns out, an agreement was made to start the process to allow American beef into Chinese markets.

It would have interesting to be the fly on the wall to listen in on those converstions. I wonder just how long they discussed beef? Was it a long discussion with some “horse trading,” or did President Trump bring it up, and the Chinese President just wave his hand and say, “Sure, why not?” Remember, this is the third time in the 13-year ban that China has said yes, but regulatory barriers have stopped any real beef trade with China. Maybe the third time is really the charm.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other ag organizations have worked tirelessly for years on beef trade issues with Congress and other government agencies. When news of the meeting between the presidents was out, 39 Senators sent a letter to President Trump about the trade issue, and thank God, our president brought it up. Good for him.

Beef trade will not start in the near future, as over the next three months, the two countries will hold talks on the process and the technical barriers, with traceability being at the top. I wonder how many animals in China have ever had an ear tag or brand on them. Have they have ever had a serious disease outbreak in their animals, and do they just keep quiet about it?

China is a huge market with a population of 1.3 billion consumers. China is the second largest importer of beef in the world and has one-fifth of the world’s population. It has been calculated that the Greater China region, which includes China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, has a $7 billion beef market.

If you have been to Yellowstone or other national parks lately and seen all the Chinese tourists touring America, sometime during their trip they must have had a good, ol' American T-bone steak. Hopefully they liked it. When they get home, I’m sure they wish they could get another one instead of some Australian canner-cow hunk of meat. The next time you are held up by a busload of Chinese tourists, think about the fact that we’re introducing them to American steaks during their tour. Like the South Koreans and other Asian consumers, I bet they like other parts of the cow, too.

Trade bans and barriers started when we discovered the first BSE-positive cow, and 13 years later, we’re still trying to get American beef into China. We hope the Chinese consumer wants our beef as bad as our ranchers want them to have it. We’ve got our foot in China’s door. Let’s all hope they let American beef follow.

From all of us at the Roundup to all of our readers, have a safe and blessed Easter. That’s the big story this week.

A week ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Spring Legislative Conference. Also in town were members of the American Sheep Industry Association for their legislative conference. Members from all three associations provided plenty of hats at our nation’s Capital and around town. Public lands ranchers and sheep and cattle producers from across the nation were welcomed, listened to and consulted on various issues in a great turnaround from the last eight years.

We heard from Cabinet secretaries, White House appointees, trade officials and Congressional members. They all commented, “You are going to like what you hear,” and we did. President Trump has been in office less than 100 days, but the President and Congress have replaced numerous regulations and laws that hurt agriculture, especially in the West.

The afternoon I flew in, the President was signing a Congressional Review Act Resolution disapproving of and rescinding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Planning 2.0 rule. In attendance were sponsors Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Congressman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), along with Commissioner and National Association of Counties Western Interstate Region President Joel Bousman, who is also a public lands rancher from Sublette County, along with other dignitaries. At the end of the ceremony, President Trump walked out with Joel’s black hat. It will be interesting to see where that hat turns up in the future.

We heard the new Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speak with a lot of confidence and authority to the roomful of public lands ranchers, saying, “The farther we get out of D.C., there’s a breach in trust, and there’s a breach in the expectation of the heavy-handedness of Department of Interior.” Speaking on our National Parks, he cited the Theodore Roosevelt Arch at the entrance of Yellowstone National Park, which is inscribed with the phase, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” He went on to say, “We’ve lost that, but were going back to it.” He said, “We work for the people, and that’s the way it was intended.” It’s been a long time since we’ve heard comments like those.

We heard from the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, the former Attorney General from Oklahoma. At the end of his talk, he received a standing ovation, so we liked what we heard from him.

For the first time in eight years, there is a person representing agriculture on the President’s Economic Advisory Council. He said, “The best way for those in agriculture to survive is to make money ranching and farming.” We agreed with that.

A number of us in agriculture have been concerned about President Trump and his methods of dealing with trade. We heard from some of his trade appointees, and it sounds like there will be bilateral trade agreements instead of multilateral trade agreements. That is, the U.S. and one other country will strike a deal. We hope it works. Agriculture has to have trade to survive, and America has to have a fair deal. We wish the President good luck.

We’ve all had some concerns of the President’s appointments, and of the many we listened to, we were encouraged greatly. Interior Secretary Zinke said we would like whom he selects as BLM Director, and names of those with connections to Wyoming were heard around town for BLM and other agencies.

Some may not be in favor of the President’s way of leading, but one in agriculture cannot dislike his and Congress’ results.