A new program from B.C.'s beef producers is offering a seasoning of advice along with steaks at the butcher's counter.
Over the next three years B.C. Cattleman's Association plans to have "beef educators" in grocery stores. Most have an agricultural background and are trained to provide advice on everything from how animals are raised to roast beef recipes.
"We've got 16 hired now and are hiring again for another five to 10," said Alana Palmer, co-ordinator for the B.C. Cattlemen's Behind the Beef marketing program.
One of those beef educators who has already spent several days on the job is Nicola Valley's Erika Strande.
"I'm passionate about agriculture and about agriculture education," she said. "I know there's misconceptions about what agriculture is about, where your food comes from and how we treat our animals."
Strande is a professional teacher who grew up on a ranch south of Merritt. She said most consumers have only a vague idea of life on a working ranch, how cattle are raised and processed.
Palmer, who is overseeing the program for the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, said educators like Strande will be in stores as well as at exhibitions and fairs over the next three years.
The program grew out of the B.C. ranching task force, a concept from former premier Gordon Campbell. Among its recommendations were better marketing for B.C. consumers.
Together the federal and provincial governments contributed $750,000 to the industry for measures that include the beef education program.
"It's a priority to have the consumer better educated and ideally that will result in higher beef sales," Palmer said.
B.C.'s beef industry has struggled since it was hit with isolated cases of BSE in 2003. That became the start of a nearly decade-long decline in prices and fortunes of ranchers.
But the last several years has seen a rebound in prices, driven by global demand and opening up of markets as fears of BSE subsided in foreign countries.
B.C. is unique in its history of ranching and continuing operation by families. It has not seen the consolidation and take-over by corporations that's occurred in many other sectors
"Beef consumers already have a good impression of ranching and beef providers," Palmer said. "They're (beef educators) not selling anything."
Despite the generally positive impressions among consumers, Palmer said "people remain a little wary" in general about their food.
"This addresses that."
The program has been up and running several weeks. Strande said the most frequent questions she hears are on grass-fed versus grain-finished beef and use of hormones.
Her message on hormones, used on calves to promote growth, is the chemicals are naturally occurring in beef cattle and residual amounts are not present at time of slaughter.
Questions on grass-fed beef are not as simple because that comes down to a matter of taste. Thus far, grass-fed beef (so-called because beef are not finished for the last few weeks of their lives on a diet of grain) is not widely available yet. Typically grass-fed beef is sold directly by farms or through specialty butchers.
Today, beef educators like Strande can tell shoppers is the beef in the refrigerated section comes from Canada. Ideally, the industry would like to cater to desire for local produce by identifying ranches.
That may be the next step for the industry, which can already identify cattle through identification programs stemming from programs mandated by Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
"The potential is there," Palmer said. "The infrastructure is in place."
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