Editor’s note: The following is part of a series of profiles of commodity group leaders.
EFFINGHAM, Ill. — Jennifer Houston usually sleeps well, but she is haunted by one fear.
“People ask, ‘What is one thing that keeps you up at night?’ What keeps me up at night is international travel,” said Houston, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The introduction of foot-and-mouth disease into the United States could be disastrous for the beef industry. And Houston worries that not enough is being done to prevent such a scenario.
As part of a team that recently toured ranches in Brazil, Houston is concerned about the minimal precautions taken at customs. She informed security personnel at an airport that she had been on farms.
“All they asked me was what kind of soles my shoes had,” she said at a conference in Illinois. “I said I left them in Brazil, which is what we do. They told me to go on. There was no ‘Let’s look at your clothes, or let’s spray your dirty laundry.’ We made a checklist of what was asked and what wasn’t asked.”
Houston considers the addition of money in the farm bill to address FMD a win. But she believes more can be done to prevent import of a contagious disease.
“If we had African swine fever in the United States, it could shut us down,” she said. “I don’t want to be a fear monger, but there may be diseases we haven’t heard about. What else is out there that we don’t know about? Foot-and-mouth disease is certainly the big bugaboo. But there are other things. Work with your state in disease preparedness.”
Hers is a two-headed organization. It conducts research, educational outreach and marketing aid through checkoff dollars. Separately, it is a political advocate whose lobbying budget is limited strictly to membership dues.
“I used to compare those to the two houses of Congress, but they have gotten so dysfunctional I don’t do that anymore,” she joked. “The policy side is all dues dollars. We have that firewall that is absolutely there. It works pretty well.”
The beef checkoff appears to be working. Industry analyst CattleFax reported that domestic demand has increased 15% in the last five years, even though prices at the supermarket have remained fairly high.
“That’s a tremendous achievement,” Houston said.
Checkoff dollars are funding a consumer project named Chuck Knows Beef. The interactive website works on artificial intelligence, helping shoppers, cooks and others learn about beef.
“It’s one of the most exciting things we’ve done,” Houston said.
NCBA combined several websites into one, offering nutritional profiles, sustainability information and answering questions such as the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef.
“When I started on the meat board, the consumer didn’t care how you raise cattle,” Houston said. “They said, ‘Just give me a recipe.’ Well, that’s changed. They want to know everything. At least some of them do.”
Among other things, the organization strives to counter public perception of beef production. One target is the Green New Deal, a loosely defined proposal calling for heavy government investment in the environment. Endorsed by several presidential candidates, it takes aim at greenhouse gas-emitters, including livestock.
“We’re able to go with the facts. But, the facts are, beef cattle account for only 2% of greenhouse gases, whereas transportation and electricity generation account for 25% plus,” Houston said. “So you’re shooting at the wrong horse here.”
Beef industry lobbyists, in a fully funded office in Washington, D.C., are working on issues such as cell-cultured meat, transportation and scientific regulatory reform.
Houston is pleased with the working relationship the industry has with the Trump White House.
“With this administration we have had so much access,” she said. “It’s so refreshing to be on offense and not on defense all the time, to have a cabinet secretary or one level under that who will call NCBA and ask cattlemen to think about (a certain issue). We want the cattlemen on board.”