Cultivating scholars and leaders for the future of agriculture is a central tenet of so many of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's educational programs. Helping future leaders to understand production agriculture, the broader agribusiness sector and the numerous policy issues affecting agriculture also is a priority.
One program that directly addresses this need is the Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars program, an interdisciplinary effort of faculty in multiple departments in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, as well as the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The NBIS program just graduated its 10th class of scholars, each of them earning a minor focusing on beef industry issues to go along with their existing CASNR major. For students in the scholars program, the final semester of their senior year focused on policy issues in the beef industry.
Their analysis of issues, policy alternatives and recommendations provides a good perspective of the scope of several policy issues affecting the beef industry today and the challenges in moving forward.
Alternative proteins. Technology developments and consumer interest are spurring efforts by several companies to deliver alternative proteins that mimic beef, whether from plant-based protein sources — such as those used for the Impossible Burger — or cell-cultured protein sources. The regulation of the plant-based products falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration.
The cell-cultured products, however, involve both real animal cells and laboratory processes in production, leading to the announcement and pending development of joint regulations between the FDA and USDA.
In either case, the issue analysis pointed to the need for clear labeling guidelines that communicate both the product and the process to consumers. It was noted that the regulatory and labeling process shouldn't "protect" beef from alternative protein competition, but should provide transparency so that consumers can understand and make informed purchasing decisions.
Beef checkoff. The $1-per-head mandatory beef checkoff funds a wide range of programs and efforts by state beef councils, the Federation of State Beef Councils and the Cattlemen's Beef Board. Those investments include promotion, research, consumer information, industry information, foreign marketing and producer communications.
Beyond the annual questions of where to invest checkoff funds, the future status of the beef checkoff itself faces questions given ongoing legal challenges. While not specifically addressing the merits of the legal challenge, the analysis of checkoff issues pointed to the continued need for transparency in checkoff spending and communication.
Mandatory price reporting. Livestock mandatory price reporting is an ongoing issue, implemented and overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service since 2001. Current reports for fed cattle sales are split into five regions, including Nebraska as its own region, and reflect prices reported when cattle are sold for delivery within a 30-day period. Current issues include the aggregation of reporting regions, as well as the delivery time period reflected in reported prices.
While one of the policy recommendation was for further research to improve the accuracy of the data and the process, a general conclusion was the desire to provide more transparency in the reported values of fed cattle in a given region for a given delivery period.
Livestock transportation regulations. The passage of new federal restrictions on hours of service for commercial motor vehicle drives in 2012 became binding with regulations implemented in 2015, and mandatory usage of electronic logging devices by most truckers by the end of 2017. The adoption of ELDs and the end of paper logs would automate the enforcement of the hours of service rules, directly affecting livestock haulers and creating conflicts between driver and road safety and the welfare of livestock on board.
The argument over ELDs can't really be about the hours of service rule, although a suggested policy alternative to provide more driving time and longer rest periods for livestock haulers could serve both the industry and the intent of the rule. Rather, the key question is the appropriate balance between transportation safety and animal welfare.
Current driving time is clocked from the point that a driver leaves a 150-mile radius from the origin, allowing for multiple pickups and wait time as may be necessary for loading livestock. A policy recommendation to adopt a similar 150-mile radius around the destination could help balance the needs to protect driver and road safety without forcing a truckload of livestock off the road for an extended rest when less than a couple hours from their destination.
Traceability. A final topic addressed in class was the broad issue of beef industry traceability. There are several different traceability systems in place. Food safety regulations require meat traceability from retailer back to processor by lot number. Federal animal disease traceability programs track interstate movement of livestock. And various source- or process-verified traceability systems exist for branded product programs or specific foreign market access.
But, the beef industry has yet to adopt a complete traceability system that tracks animals and then beef all the way from farm to fork. The goals of such a traceability system would include not only animal disease control and food safety, but also could satisfy increasing consumer demands and help protect or grow foreign market access.
Implementing a traceability system would come with numerous questions, including costs and control of data. Analyzing costs and who would bear them against potential benefits is an important consideration, but the issue of traceability is likely to continue facing the beef industry as long as it takes to eventually implement it.
There are numerous other policy issues on the horizon for the beef industry, from environmental regulations to trade policy. However, the five issues examined by this year's NBIS students provide a good perspective and share a common theme of the need for transparency, whether in communicating information or demonstrating compliance and performance.
The analysis suggests the beef industry will need to address these issues and others to continue progressing. The analysis also points to the quality of students and the comprehensive education and skills they have garnered to become future leaders in the beef industry.
Lubben is an Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.