All the talk these days in the agri-food sector, even at the farm level, is about building brands.
Recently, Ontario beef producers were told at a meeting that they should be branding their beef more than they do now, particularly given what appears to be an increased interest in local food by some consumers.
Since 2001, a campaign has been underway to promote superb Ontario corn-fed beef, and an Ontario-raised meat campaign is in the wings. But there's not been a knockout punch delivered in the branding arena, and beef producers may be missing a big opportunity to capitalize on public sentiment.
But forget about missing an opportunity — what about losing ground?
Last week, stomachs across the continent turned as the United States Department of Agriculture reconfirmed its blessings of cloned meat. The department said not only was cloned meat acceptable, but further, it said the product was so ordinary it didn't even need to be labelled as anything special.
Some scientists say this makes sense. One of the most respected biomedical researchers at the University of Guelph, Professor Allan King, told me last year there is no scientific reason to fear cloned meat. It is identical in every way to conventional meat, as far as nutrition and composition goes, he says, and I believe him. King even talked glowingly about having it on the barbecue.
However, there's the reality of science, and then there's public perception.
Do you think most people consider cloned meat to be acceptable fare?
I do like it when science is brought in to determine if something is safe, or as safe as it can practically be determined to be at that moment in time. And since the mid-1980s, scientists have been working with cloned animals including the famous U.K. sheep Dolly to better understand their uniqueness.
And just like these animals are nothing new, neither is the U.S. declaration a big surprise, either.
Almost exactly a year ago, cloned meat made headlines when a report in an animal reproduction scientific journal called "Theriogenology" said there was no nutritional or toxicological difference between cloned and conventional animals.
Vitamins, minerals, proteins and fat were basically the same, and observers predicted then that study would be the one that compelled American authorities to being cloned meat and milk into the mainstream.
But realistically, there's a problem.
Cloned meat just doesn't pass the sniff test, the ick factor, the yuck quotient or whatever non-scientific measuring stick you use. It just doesn't resonate with the public.
It may be as safe as its traditional relative and namesake, but there's something about it that's hard to swallow.
Now, against this backdrop of cloned meat, the agricultural industry is trying to convince consumers their product is safe and beyond reproach . . . which it is, cloned or not. But the cloned meat movement doesn't help the meat industry sell itself on image and quality, which is increasingly the way to go. Imagine: local cloned meat? No way.
Events like this should make the industry pay even more attention than ever to image and branding. It needs to find a way to separate in people's minds its industrial use meat, which is likely where cloned meat is headed, and its table stock, which is what will appeal to local foodies and others who expect the real McCoy, not a clone.
After all, food quality and reputation has a ripple effect on so much, including tourism, which is struggling for every ounce of attention it can get.
New figures show tourism finally inched up one per cent in the third quarter of 2007, the first time that's happened in ages.
But I don't think tourists will flock to Canada (or the U.S.) if they have big questions about the origins of the food on their plates.
Once again, it's time for more, better and clearer communications.