Q&A session with NCBA's CEO Forrest Roberts.
Q: What's your favorite cut of beef, and how do you like it cooked?
A: Since I'm a meat-and-potatoes type of guy, I prefer a bone-in ribeye steak, prepared to a medium level of doneness. It's a very flavorful, tender cut and a great beef-eating experience.
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from growing up on a Texas ranch?
A: I grew up on a family-owned, diversified livestock operation in Uvalde, Texas. That ingrained in me at an early age the values of integrity, work ethic and perseverance.
Our operation later expanded to include a retail meat market for locally grown, corn-fed beef and pork, an experience that allowed me to better understand what drives consumer demand for protein. These combined lessons drive my confidence, optimism and passion for the future of the beef industry.
Q: The National Cattlemen's Beef Association enjoyed good access and influence with the Bush administration. What's the outlook for the group, and the cattle industry, under the Obama presidency?
A: We're a 110-year-old association that has worked successfully with both parties. In fact, we've already worked with the president's transition team.
We have been stressing that decisions about agriculture need to be based on sound science. We are saying to the administration: We're looking forward to working with you to ensure America continues to be a major producer and exporter of a safe, wholesome, sustainable and affordable food supply.
Q: What's at the top of your to-do list as you take the reins of the association?
A: I care most about ensuring the strength of the U.S. beef industry, because a strong industry means cattle ranchers and farmers can pass successful operations to the next generation.
The food we eat in this country is produced by many small family operations. If these family businesses remain strong, America is strong. Improving trade access is on the top of my list. Exports add roughly $180 to every head of cattle sold in this country.
Q: Does the meatpacking industry have too much control over cattle supplies and beef prices?
A: If they did, they wouldn't be losing the money they are today.
Cattle supplies have been in a state of decline since 1996; the beef cow herd is 10 percent smaller today than in 1996. We still have roughly the same packing capacity with a few exceptions. Packers have been chasing smaller cattle supplies and have posted significant losses trying to keep their plants running at acceptable capacity levels.
Q: How has the cattle industry been affected by the first discovery of mad cow disease in the U.S. in 2003?
A: Americans learned quickly that this disease did not present a safety concern.
That said, nearly all our international trading partners closed their borders to U.S. beef at the beginning of 2004. The association has been fighting to get trade reinstituted, based on internationally accepted science and trade standards, ever since.
As a result, U.S. beef exports have steadily increased. By 2010, we expect exports to return to pre-2003 levels, but that's six years and an $11 billion loss later.
Q: With most of North America's mad cow cases originating in Canada, is there concern about Canada's adherence to cattle-feed regulations designed to limit spread of the disease?
A: We continue to monitor the situation closely. Currently, the number of cases identified in Canada does not exceed the amount science says should be a concern. And we know cases around the world continue to decline each year; the fact is, this disease is being eradicated from the global cattle population.
But really, what's most important is that any material (such as brain and spinal cord) that could carry the disease-causing agent is removed, as a precautionary measure, from all beef produced in the U.S. or Canada. This process happens every day with every animal to ensure this diminishing disease has no effect on public health.
Q: How can the U.S. rebuild export markets that were lost or damaged from those cases?
A: We've rebuilt our exports from near zero at the beginning of 2004 to almost 2 billion pounds of beef and beef products today. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance, working with our government's trade officials and those of our trading partners.
The good news is, once we get access to an international market, they welcome the opportunity to once again buy great-tasting American beef.
Q: Is the economic downturn having a big effect on the cattle industry and beef sales?
A: It's a mixed bag. The fact is, beef has a product for nearly every price point. While we're seeing steak sales at restaurants decline, burger sales are up.
And while restaurant visits are down overall, consumers are cooking more at home, and the latest data I've seen shows retail beef sales are up over last year.
I think a good steak is a relatively modest way to treat ourselves during tight times.
Q: If you have any time outside of the office, how do you like to spend it?
A: My wife, Janet, and I have three daughters: Kylie, Kinley and Kalleigh. Any free time I have is focused on my family. A real treat is when we get the opportunity to spend that time with Janet's family on their small commercial cow-calf operation along the Gulf Coast region of south- central Texas.
Edited for length and clarity from an interview by staff writer Steve Raabe.