When times are good and looking to get even better, it's easy to forget how hard the struggle might have been to get there. Such is often the case with beef demand.

At the 2004 Cattle Industry Annual Convention in Phoenix in late January, the convention room went crazy when it was announced that beef demand had increased by more than 5% in 2003 alone. In fact, since the beef industry halted its demand slide in 1998, demand for beef has increased by 15.4%.

That performance is impressive in any context but one must remember that just four years before, the industry's long-range plan had set a goal to increase demand by a very ambitious 6% from the start of 2000 to the end of 2004. In fact, I can remember sitting in the convention hall in Charlotte, NC, wondering whether the industry was realistic in setting such a lofty goal.

You have to remember that back in 1999 the demand news that set the convention to rejoicing was a report that the 20-year slide in U.S. beef demand had been “slowed.” Not turned up, just slowed.

U.S. beef producers were used to bad news in those days. Beef's market share had dropped 34% since 1976, going from a 60% market share to what was projected to be a 26% market share in 2001.

But just four years later, that long-range goal of bumping beef demand by 6% was not only accomplished, it was vaporized. Plus, it was accomplished a year ahead of schedule.

In a report in the April 1999 issue of BEEF, staffer Warren Kester reported on that Charlotte convention and the unveiling of the industry's long-range plan. He quoted Wayne Purcell, the noted Virginia Tech economist, as telling attendees that the slowing of the beef demand freefall was “the most encouraging thing I've seen in 20 years.” He credited the trend to the “new consumer-oriented programs funded by checkoff dollars.”

“The modern consumer will pay the kind of prices for quality, consistency and convenience that will make producers a profit for a change,” Purcell said that day.

Back in those days, there were a lot of hopeful skeptics to such words. After all, the industry focus of the 1980s had wholly been on reducing costs and boosting efficiency in the production and marketing system — and that was just to survive.

It was at that same meeting where a broad-based Beef Demand Committee reported on having identified five primary drivers of demand. They were food safety, palatability, health and nutrition, consumer-friendly products, and cost efficiencies and value enhancement.

The results of Purcell's prophetic words and the wisdom of that five-point program are on full display today. What made it possible was the checkoff, coupled with the dedicated and tireless efforts of cattle industry volunteers and staff at the local, state and national levels.

Some folks would minimize the checkoff's role, arguing it was the surge of high-protein diets, Canada's loss of its export markets and the industry's currentness that are responsible. Fact is, all played a role but would any of them have occurred to the extent they did without the foundation of nutritional and food safety research that changed consumers' perception of beef?

The latest producer attitude survey of the checkoff (see page 98) found 69% of producers approve of the checkoff. That January survey result was a 9% jump in support from a year ago. What's more, the survey found fewer producers disapprove of the checkoff today than six months ago.

It's ironic then, that the future of a self-help program so fundamental to the improved fortunes of the beef industry lies in hands far removed from those of cattle producers.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its request seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of the Livestock Marketing Association's lawsuit opposing the checkoff program. That court will decide if the checkoff lives or dies. And that's the downside to what is a tremendous success story.