America's beef cattle industry has conjured up many male macho images in its long history. Think The Marlboro Man or John Wayne. Yet it's also been notable for having women in its leadership ranks. This is in part a reflection of cattle ranching, where husband and wife are often business partners.

Women have played a key role through their state beef councils in connecting the industry with consumers. Some of the industry's finest leaders in recent years included Jo Ann Smith of Florida and Jan Lyons of Kansas.

The beef-packing industry, in contrast, has been male-dominated for much of its history. I hesitate to conjecture the reasons, but the “bloody” business of killing and cutting up animals might have something to do with it.

Only a handful of women have ascended to top positions in beef-industry companies or trade groups. One of the most notable is Rosemary Mucklow. She has spent the past 48 years in the industry, most recently as head of the National Meat Association (NMA), and is widely respected throughout the industry and the federal government.

It was therefore fitting that NMA offered Jody Horner her first opportunity to address an industry meeting since she became president of Cargill Meat Solutions last February. Horner had no meat industry background. But she is a 25-year Cargill veteran who has worked in grain trading and flour milling, corporate strategy, financial trading and human resources. Her last job was president of Cargill Salt.

As Horner told NMA, “this may seem to be a bit of a strange career path, but at Cargill it isn't at all unique. We like to move people around, give new talent new opportunities and give people big challenges and the support they need to be successful.”

Given Cargill's remarkable history, the way it moves its people around appears to contribute significantly to its success. It had its second-best year last year, despite the global recession, racking up $3.33 billion in net income from $116.6 billion in revenues. Other companies, and the beef industry, could take a leaf out of Cargill's book and look for more Jody Horners.

Horner's message to NMA was timely, given the drumbeat of negative media stories about U.S. agriculture and the meat industry. Corporate responsibility should be core to everything a company does, and telling the world the great stories of the industry is also very important, she says.

Horner also believes meat processors have to be open to dialogue with detractors. They must be willing to work with people who want to solve problems, but who at times don't see the world the way processors do. Horner cites how Cargill works with Greenpeace in Europe and Brazil, and what Cargill has achieved in the U.S. in environmental and energy innovation.

Horner also recounts a meeting she and Cargill Beef President John Keating had with a major retail customer. They did a traditional business review and ended the meeting talking about corporate responsibility. They mentioned that 30% of the beef Cargill sells the retailer is produced on renewable energy.

The retailer expressed surprise that Cargill hadn't mentioned it previously or offered this information as a brand attribute for his meat case. They then discussed the fact that about 50% of Cargill's contract hog farms no longer using gestation crates. The retailer asked why Cargill wasn't bidding for his pork business. The point is that corporate responsibility is also good for business, she says.

Horner's story is also a reminder of how consumers and retailers are forcing changes in the way we raise animals and produce meat. Topics such as corporate responsibility, sustainability, environmental impact and carbon footprint were scarcely mentioned 20 years ago. Now they are increasingly redefining the U.S. meat and livestock industry.

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly.