ALAN SCHER ZAGIER 05/18/11
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The national beef industry has enlisted college students
across the country in its public relations fight for America's hearts, minds
The Masters of Beef Advocacy program also recruits
farmers, ranchers, high-end chefs and school dietitians to spread the gospel
of red meat consumption. But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association,
which started the outreach effort two years ago, has placed a strong
emphasis on the Twitter generation. At least 20 percent of the nearly 2,200
program graduates are age 21 or younger.
The online program -- called
MBA in a nod to the more commonly known graduate business degree -- is
available in 47 states and particularly popular at public land-grant
universities with strong agricultural schools, such as the University of
Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.
what the science is," said Dennis Fennewald, a fifth-generation farmer,
former bull semen salesman and beef production instructor at Missouri. "The
emotional part, that really is being controlled by people who don't know or
understand our science."
Fennewald and professors at other schools
typically offer the six-hour course as extra credit rather than a required
assignment. Students who finish it are expected to speak to school groups
and civic clubs or build online buzz through social media.
senior Erin Mohler and other members of the school's Collegiate
Cattlewomen's club spent a recent afternoon sharing their "Meet Your Meat"
message with passing students on a busy pedestrian mall.
sold rib-eye steak sandwiches from a portable food trailer while a
1,600-pound Simmental beef cow named Summer grazed nearby in a temporary
Students passed out recipes for Moroccan-style beef
kabobs and tenderloin salad with cranberries and pears, while other
brochures touted beef's high content of zinc, iron, protein and other
essential minerals and vitamins.
Mohler, a senior animal sciences
major whose parents live in Maryland and own 40 cattle on a north Missouri
"hobby farm," said her perspective isn't always embraced on campus. Yet she
"A lot of people have a hard time grasping why I
would promote the cattle industry," she said. "More people need to
understand where their food comes from. You eat three times a day."
The reactions to Summer and her handlers were decidedly mixed. Last year,
the "Meet Your Meat" mavens convinced several passers-by to renounce their
vegetarian ways, group member Kaitlyn Lee said.
Freshman David Adams
had a different reaction, calling the display "kind of gross."
don't want to see an animal and then go buy a sandwich made from its
relative," he said. "I guess I'd like to remain oblivious."
grassroots campaign is just one part of the beef industry's effort to
reverse a five-decade slide in meat consumption by Americans. Seed money
came from the $1 per head of domestic and imported live cattle that
producers pay under a 1985 federal law. Fifty cents of each $1 goes to the
national cattle group's Beef Promotion and Research Board.
producers use their $1 surcharge to operate a similar program called
"Operation Main Street."
Focusing the outreach on college campuses
usually considered friendlier terrain for People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals and like-minded groups -- is an obvious and needed approach, said
Daren Williams, executive communications director for the Denver-based
National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"There's a political, social
and economic discussion going on about food production," he said. "(Beef
producers) have felt left out of the discussion."
At Western Kentucky
University, animal sciences professor Nevil Speer offers the Masters of Beef
Advocacy curriculum as an extra-credit assignment for the mostly freshmen
and sophomores in his introductory-level classes. The units cover beef
safety, production techniques, animal care, environmental stewardship,
nutrition and the national program that provides marketing and research
"It's not a coercive type of thing," Speer said. "It's an
external and an objective voice about the food system ... It's not set up as
Nathan Runkle disagrees. The executive director of
Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, which promotes a vegetarian diet, said that
"a more accurate title for this offensive program would be the Master of
"Centers for higher learning should not become dumping grounds
for propaganda programs that push increased profits for an industry that
subjects animals to extreme cruelty and exploitation," he said. "Cruelty and
violence has no place in the classroom."
Speer said he doesn't expect
all of his students to embrace the beef industry's viewpoint. Like any good
college class, the program ultimately forces students with entrenched views
to consider other perspectives, even if they don't agree with them, he said.
"You have all kinds of students going through this program, and all of
the sudden they're talking to each other," he said. "As long as we have
dialogue going, that's a good thing."
Alan Scher Zagier can be
reached at http://twitter.com/azagier