Metrics Matter

Deming theories

Sometimes, I’m asked what is going on at the Beef Board (as in “Heeeeey, whassup?” Not as in “What in the h-e-double toothpicks is up?!?!?”—although that happens too. That’s another rant…er, I  mean blog…though.) Despite some of my more touchy-feely blog shares, when it comes to management, I believe big-time in metrics and measurement. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

W. Edwards Deming (another one of those darned brilliant Iowans…what’s in the water in that state?), is the granddaddy of modern “measure-to-manage” strategies. Those of you not familiar with Deming might have fun first clicking back and reading some of my earlier blogs on Japan and then researching this great man and his impact on Japanese business systems (and world wide systems as well, but the Japanese were the first to listen and adapt). In 1960, the Prime Minister of Japan, acting on behalf of the Emperor, awarded Deming Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class. The citation on the medal recognizes Deming’s contributions to Japan’s industrial rebirth and its worldwide success. Historians say Deming was known for his kindness, compassion and humor (Salsburg, 2002). This great man passed away in 1993, the same year he founded the Deming Institute in Washington, DC.  And today, his name and famous 14 points are eponymous with modern, metrics-based management. Many of you have heard me drone on about continuous improvement without giving the Deming Cycle or Deming himself credit—a miss on my part (I cannot even say I am even a very good student of Deming, although I try).

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Perhaps, in the future, I’ll tell you about some cool new evaluation projects we have going on at the Board this year. But for now, let’s talk about performance.

Metric 1: Producer Awareness and Approval

This bi-annual survey asks checkoff investors if they aware of, and if they approve of, the management of the checkoff program. Many years of data allow us to trend line both awareness and approval of the program. The results of our latest survey, completed in January, show:

  • At 91%, name awareness among producers of the beef checkoff program is on the rise and rated by the independent research firm as “very high”;
  • At 78%, the research found the highest level of producer approval of the program in 21 years;
  • 80% of producers believe the checkoff contributes positively to consumer demand for beef; and
  • 79% say the checkoff does a good job of representing their interests

Metric 2: CBB Management

Each year, the Beef Board undergoes an external, independent financial audit.  The external audit determines if our financial statements are fairly stated in all material aspects. Since the inception of the program, all external audit reports have resulted in “unqualified” or, in laymen terms, “clean” opinions. In no case has the external audit found any evidence that CBB was not in compliance with the Act & Order or the AMS Investment Policy. In fact, for the last four years, the auditors have not only issued unqualified opinions, but also have not had a single recommendation for improvement – such as changes in policies or procedures.

Last December, we received the results of a USDA Agricultural Marketing Services, or AMS, Management Review of the Beef Board—the first ever in the history of the Beef Board. The objective of the AMS Management review was to ensure the Board was in compliance with the Act & Order, the AMS Guidelines, the AMS Investment Policy, the CBB Bylaws and CBB’s internal policies and procedures. The review had no findings. At the conclusion of the review, AMS commended excellence of management and operations at the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

While we’re talking about audit metrics, I’d like to address the Office of Inspector General “peer review” of its own report issued early in 2013. This review confirmed the initial conclusion of the 2013 OIG eport that found no audit issues or lack of compliance by AMS, the Beef Board, or Beef Board contractors was found.

Personally, I don’t know of any organization that has been more painstakingly audited that the Beef Board and Beef Checkoff Program have been in the last couple of years – but the above findings (or lack thereof) certainly provide a validated body of assurance.

Metric 3: Consumer Willingness to Pay and Beef Demand

The latest Oklahoma State Food Demand Survey data indicate that, in March 2014, consumer willingness to pay more for hamburger increased by 5.42 percent. Remember, though, that if consumers are continually willing to pay the high prices that supply has helped dictate in the current marketplace — it’s a strong litmus test as to the value they see in the beef and beef products they are finding in the meat case and enjoying in restaurants.

Due to the Board’s 2013 Beef Demand Determinant Study  and the checkoff’s ongoing market research, we know that price – along with demand drivers including food safety, product quality, health, nutrition, and social aspects and sustainability, play roles in consumers’ decisions about purchasing your end product.

It’s so important to understand the role of these drivers. Willingness to pay is an absolutely critical factor in beef’s success in the marketplace – in  maintaining and growing beef demand in 2014 and 2015.

When consumers see value in a product, they have a higher willingness to pay for it. In fact, checkoff market research indicates that we have seen a cutback in at-home eatings of beef, particularly in roasts and some in steak. To put this in perspective, our loss of in-home servings per capita is somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 percent as of February.   Per person, that is a reduction of three to four beef servings per year; across the nation, that is close to a million fewer servings of beef eaten in-home. This coordinates closely to our low supply situation.

The number of meals in-home still exceeds the number of foodservice beef meals. It might be easy for us to forget, however, about the fact that people can really stretch beef in-home, especially ground beef, in spaghetti sauce, tacos, and other ingredient recipes.  Actual volume (as opposed to number of eatings or meals) remains more matched between in-home and foodservice. But the truth is, beef maintains such strength in foodservice that Technomic data indicate since 2009, beef represents the largest pound increase of any protein despite a shrinking supply.

You can start to see, then, that with reduced supply and record prices, a reduced number of in-home beef meals isn’t necessarily an issue. On the other hand (warning, a short trip down a garden path approaches), the shift toward foodservice itself is intriguing and invites further study. With higher prices, I had expected that consumers might shift meals away from foodservice and toward the in-home experience. But John Lundeen, the beef checkoff’s market research guru at NCBA, suggests that a few things are combining for our current situation:

  1. Consumers can still get relatively inexpensive but still very tasty burgers at foodservice.
  2. Millennials particularly like the quality guarantee they get at a restaurant. They may say to themselves, “Better to have a chef make that pricey steak than me.”
  3. The celebratory nature of beef fits the foodservice environment very nicely.
  4. Has to do with modern lifestyles and smaller households: Roasts often are not seen as a fit with a small household, for example. And we also see less steak consumption in single-person households.

So, we know lower available supplies mean declining consumption (please, please remember—consumption isn’t the same as demand). Recently in the media, I saw a story saying that chicken consumption had overtaken beef consumption for the first time in 100 years—of course, because these days we simply do not make as much beef as we have in the past. We cannot eat what we don’t make, so obviously we see beef consumption dropping. That said, the continued strength of beef demand throughout last year and until today surprised even the savviest of market analysts.

As Kansas State ag economist Glynn Tonsor pointed out recently in a Twitter discussion, the entire industry must continue to work together to align beef offerings closely with the desires of those consumers willing and able to buy them.  In the end, this is what supports continued demand strength. (Here’s a great blog on why internal food fights are senseless, which makes this point much better than I ever could.)

If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing. ~W. Edwards Deming

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~W. Edwards Deming

Everyday Beauty

As I spend my last few hours here, I want to leave you with a Japanese philosophywabi sabi. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teachings of impermanence, suffering and emptiness. Wabi sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect (Juniper, 2003, The Japanese Art of Impermanence).

While these concepts may sound negative to you, realizing that life is transient, living with an expectation of joy, while fully acknowledging and rejoicing in imperfection, makes for incredible liberation of spirit. Mindful living encourages you to venerate the beauty you find every day, especially in those things you may often overlook, or find familiar.

If you are too busy to breathe, and often find yourself without moments in your day to close your eyes and reflect, perhaps you need to know more about wabi sabi.

I’d like to share a few images of things that touched me in this way over the past few weeks.

zen garden at RyoanJi-Dry_garden

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tokyo night view

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Peace.

Dewa Mata

I’m a little sad today to leave the friends and wonderful experiences I’ve had in Japan. In no particular order, I offer you some of my observations about the beef market here. Again, my heartfelt thanks to the Eisenhower Fellowship program for this amazing experience.

Safety is the price of entry

Sometimes cattlemen tell me that we’ve done enough work on beef safety—that we know as much as we’re ever going to learn, that we need to stop investing in safety research and telling our safety story. As a matter of fact, I had several folks tell me this exact thing right before the government declared non-0157H7 STECs as adulterants. Whoops.

You can argue about politics and trade negotiations that swirled around the BSE issue, here and in other countries, but severe trade restrictions in the Japan market for a decade hurt American business irreparably. I don’t mean that we cannot regain the market (better than it was), I mean that American companies and American beef producers lost critical opportunities in those years. Consumers here demand safe beef for their families, just like at home, and we must continue to give them the safest product in the world. My learning in Japan is that we can never, ever, ever (am I really quoting Taylor Swift?) shift our focus from providing the safest product possible. I mean, like, ever.

Just for Japan

Frankly, some Japanese women (who make more than 90 percent of food purchasing decisions) feel a little…well…squishy about U.S. beef. What do I mean? They say it comes from a long way away. They wonder if U.S. producers care for animals, or profit (Are the two mutually exclusive??). They wonder if U.S. producers really care about what they do, and the product they produce. Consumers here want the option of choosing a U.S. beef product made in America with the discerning Japanese consumer in mind. Producing beef that is “just for Japan” has marketing power with this audience.

Individualized Choice

Product differentiation plays a critical role in this market. Remember for about 6,000 years, rice has set the standard here for product differentiation (Tamayaka, 2001). With literally hundreds of brands to choose from (I heard a lot about Koshihikari rice and I’m going to try it when I get home), consumers here talk about brand loyalty passionately. They use brands their parents loved, brands their families love, and they carry strong opinions about differences in taste, regions, grains, recipes and uses. In an earlier post, my photo of the milk case, with nearly 30 brands of milk staring back at me, taught me that American products must have clear differentiation from others—and I don’t just mean our Aussie competition. We would be well-served to explain not only our difference from our competitors, but also to offer many choices, through the use of brands, to Japanese consumers. As one consumer panelist said, “Brands indicate the producer cares enough about the product to put a special mark on it.” (That was the translation of what she said anyway. Is it kosher to use quote marks when quoting someone whose words had to be translated for you? I’ll have to ask the AP hotline that question.) Consumers here like to have an active choice, and even a package, that fulfills the needs of the individual, including price. Let’s give them lots of American beef products, from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and even in the same meat case. Giving Japanese consumers more choices through American beef products (see Why the World Matters) means we share our bounty with them. We need to offer multiple, differentiated products they just cannot get at home.

Shopping as Entertainment

Many Japanese women work as homemakers, and they take that job extremely seriously. In a consumer panel, I heard from a woman who cooks different homemade dinners, at different times, for her children and husband, according to their individual tastes and timing. When asked, she replied that she enjoyed her job making a home and raising her family, and she would do the best job she could to keep them happy and nourished. With that attitude in mind, I learned that Japanese women approach grocery shopping as both a critical responsibility and an enjoyable experience. In fact, several members of the panel mentioned that they shop about five times a week and they look forward to it every day. One of the packer reps I visited with, who has marketed beef for many years here, said having and making choices in the grocery store entertains folks, even as they fulfill the responsibility of nurturing their families. In comparison to other areas of the store, the meat case may be boring our customers. With convenience store retailers offering 100 new products each month, Japanese consumers demand something new and innovative when they shop. Grocery shopping should be more like Disneyland, and less like drudge, he said, so customers rush to the meat case to see what’s new, what recipes they can try, what fun they can have. Let’s make meat shopping fun. Entertain Japanese consumers, and they will reward you with purchases.

Customized Convenience

Even though most women stay home, or work part-time jobs here, the number of women choosing to stay in the workforce after having children grows annually. Many women shop via the Internet – placing an individual order at 4:00 and accepting delivery at home by 7:00 p.m. Not only does this save them from walking to the store and hauling heavy bags, it allows them to order from the office and be ready to cook when they arrive home. Therefore, in addition to fun, convenience is key—but convenient products must still feel “homemade” to moms and wives. I heard over and over that women want to take it home, put it into their own dishes, and serve it like they cooked it fresh. No take out buckets or wrappers on the dinner table. Convenient beef products with a homemade feel that also contribute to a Disneyland in the meat case (am I asking for too much here?).

Beef Can Be Fresh, Seasonal, and JIT

We don’t often think about beef as seasonal. Actually, we don’t think about many products as seasonal in the U.S., given we can find almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world, for a reasonable price. But given that the Japanese consumer wants to celebrate seasons with appropriate food choices (see Fresh Thinking), perhaps celebrating a seasonal component of beef, or a just in time aspect that discusses our ship time as time to “ripen” or age to perfection, or promoting beef around an appropriate holiday has potential for us.

Packaging and POS Matter

When shopping the meat case here, I immediately noticed the lighting and the packaging. Particularly in domestic beef meant for more special dishes (shabu shabu or sukiyaki for example), stores trim beef into consistent sizes and shapes, place it carefully in the package and add a garnish for color. Meat managers display packages in neat stacks, aligned and sorted. Japanese women like to see this kind of care put into packaging and display—to them, it indicates that farmers cared that much too. Sloppy arrangement, bloody packages, inconsistent trim with odd sizes or shapes decreases desirability. Sounds simple, but little things mean a lot here and the attention to detail indicates much farm-to-fork product quality in the Japanese mind.

Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, USMEF, the American ambassador to Japan, President Obama or the Buddha.

Random Photos of the Day:

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Warm thanks to the EF Fellows of Japan, for hosting a good-bye dinner featuring river eel last night. The eel was excellent–and the lively, intelligent discussion coupled with one of the best red wines I’ve ever tasted–priceless.

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Yesterday’s Bento Box lunch

Ginza Apple Store

This one is for my Dad and brother. Disneyland, indeed!

 

Silky Success

view from 36th floor Sumo building

One great success story in branding meat comes from my visit with SC Foods (Sumitomo Corp.), with its brand “Silky Pork” founded in 1994, and a sub-brand “Yongenton Silky Pork” in 2011. (As an aside, the view of Tokyo Bay from the 36th floor of the Sumitomo building, above, will knock your socks off! If Tokyo gets the 2016 Olympics, Sumitomo executives will be able to look right into the Athlete’s Village, which will be located on “reclaimed” land, or one of the growing number of man-made islands off the coast of Japan, built largely from waste. Back to our regular message…) To understand why even the name of this product makes a lot of sense in this market, you must first understand the Japanese preference for a soft mouth feel when it comes to meat. You almost have to chew it (or gum it, sort of), to understand it, but A-5 Waygu beef has it, most iterations of tofu have it, some of the kale products have it. Texture in food carries a lot of influence, and the name “Silky Pork” imparts exactly the right level of chewability for a desirable meat product here.

The company realized early on (nearly 20 years ago) that a branded product offered additional differentiation in a rapidly expanding market, which allowed for additional profit potential. Smithfield (a comparatively small packer at the time) agreed to partner on the new product development, since several of the larger packers they approached weren’t interested in producing a branded product. Smithfield was fully integrated–farm to fork–which appealed to SC Foods (and to the Japanese consumer, see earlier posts). As a result of this integration, Smithfield offered a full gamut of information (again, farm to fork) that allowed SC Foods to “tell the story” of where Silky Pork came from. This integration let SC Foods help Silky Pork consumers feel the love behind the production. The brand rolled out in Japanese packaging (no English)–it was a uniquely Japanese brand from a Japanese company. This was, and is, important, because the Japanese consumers firmly believed (and largely still do) that the best quality of nearly anything comes from Japan.

Silky Pork made Sumitomo a pioneer in selling chilled pork into Japan. It led the way for additional meat branding (multiple American pork brands now compete skillfully with more than 400 domestic pork brands in Japan), it opened the door for consumer research in stores, and allowed a smooth intro into foodservice through yet another partnership with existing Tonkatsu restaurants, increasing the feeling of familiarity to Japanese consumers.

I believe beef industry companies could learn from pork’s success in Japan, as we rebuild and retool our offerings to Japan. Every cloud has a silver lining. While every story I hear about the 2003 case of BSE and its effect on the Japanese beef market makes me cringe, I’ve begun to think that a “do-over” in re-introducing Japanese consumers to U.S. beef may actually have a silver lining–allowing us to strategize carefully about our future direction, and to decide how much investment we need to make to fully realize profit potential in international markets.

CGC Black Canyon rollout

At the CGC Black Canyon brand rollout, with USMEF’s CEO Phil Seng (to my left) and folks from National Beef, including Peter Michalksi, Vice President, International Division (to Seng-san’s left).

One thing I’ve heard in each of my packer meetings with JBS, Tyson, National and Cargill (and several other importers and distributors) this week: middle meats have growth potential in Japan. While we definitely sold some middle meat here prior to BSE, the potential at this point in time may be larger than ever. How to capture the heart, mind and discerning eye of Japanese women (who make most of the buying decisions here, just like in the U.S.) remains our challenge and our opportunity.

Random Photos of the Day:

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Tokyo Tower at night

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You can watch TV on the stairway leading up to the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) building.

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Onward! To Taiwan…and beyond!

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We’ve ridden the famous Bullet Train (Shinkasen) several times, and I’m going to tell you–it goes really fast (in technical engineering terms), with a max speed of 200 mph. You never feel the speed once you get going, though, you only know you’re flying by the view from the window. In 2007 (its busiest year), the line transported 353 million passengers. For comparison, the U.S. population currently stands at about 316 million.

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I miss my dog!

 

Why the World Matters: A Rant

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I’m headed to Taiwan on Saturday for the last two weeks of my Eisenhower Fellowship experience. I’ve been blessed thus far by timing (UTM rule in February for Japan, export growth to Taiwan) and relationships (the EF network and the generous assistance of U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF).

I’ve had some questions about why I chose Japan and Taiwan for my Fellowship trip. USMEF reports that U.S. exports to Taiwan already show strong recovery in 2013, rebounding after a setback over beta agonist use in 2011 and 2012. Taiwan set an MRL (maximum residue limit) in September, 2012 for both domestic and imported beef, and that set this market up for growth. Through February exports to Taiwan were 16 percent higher than a year ago in volume (5,708 metric tons) and up nearly 40 percent in value ($42.6 million). This is the fastest pace ever for beef export value to Taiwan.

Beef Exports to Taiwan Showing Strong Recovery in 2013

Take the UTM (under thirty month) rule for Japan and the clear potential in Taiwan together, and, (because this is my blog and I can say what I want to), I offer you this: If you’re in the beef industry, and you don’t see the potential for increased profitability in U.S. producer pockets in these two countries, and indeed in international markets as a whole, I highly recommend an eye exam. U.S. producers have much to offer consumers around the globe.

For example, many Japanese consumers prefer higher quality domestic beef but I’m hearing experts (packers, importers, distributors, retailers, foodservice) recognize a definite gap in products available to Japanese consumers–and many want the U.S. to fill that gap. The gap nestles in below domestic product and above product we successfully provide to Japan for Gyudon rice bowls (short plate, for example). The gap includes valuable U.S. middle meats from the upper two-thirds Choice and Prime categories. Frankly, the Aussies may not be able to fill the gap effectively, because 1) even their long-fed beef is more unpredictable quality-wise than our branded programs with specs for quality grade in upper two-thirds Choice and Prime, and 2) they can’t meet Japanese demand for specific cuts in quantity. We have a wide open playing field here, should U.S. companies and producers choose to rise to the challenge.

Yes, international markets may fluctuate with trade access issues (there’s a slight chance of rain on a weekend you plan a camping trip–does this mean you give up and never plan a camping trip?!). Yes, our domestic consumers eat most of what we make and we cannot ignore them (Huge kudos to our checkoff contractors National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American National CattleWomen, National Livestock Association and North American Meat Association. They do an excellent job of keeping our domestic marketing based on research, fresh, lively and effective.)

However, I strongly encourage U.S. producers to take a longer term view of our supply and demand situation, and our active role in beef demand. I’ve heard time and again how producers are price takers, not price makers (said with an enormous sigh when discussing prices, usually). I frankly get a little frustrated by this statement. Unless you’re an economist and you’re explaining market basics in a lecture, saying we are “price takers”  seems an excuse for lackadaisical behavior–a reason to sit back, take what’s given and ignore (or even argue against the checkoff’s stellar work on behalf of beef producers!) opportunities to increase our potential for profit. While we have a product shortage in the U.S. now, that won’t always be so–growing international markets means the industry could support increased production while maintaining a decent price for all segments of the industry as our supply grows.

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” ~ James A. Michener

The trick remains our ability to put aside our own opinions, desires, and frames of reference, and see each market as a separate culture, people and environment for our offerings. Our ability to understand consumers in other places as completely different from U.S. consumers, with different needs, will allow us to differentiate products, target effectively, and realize continued (and increased) success around the world.

Random Photo of the Day:

beer in vending machine

Yes, Randy, that’s beer in a vending machine. Vending machines are everywhere!

sake yummy

We’ve had a little sake since we arrived! This one was really yummy. Think I can find it in the States, since I can’t read the label?

polly check vest Waygu farm

Representing the beef checkoff in my vest at the Waygu feedlot.

Price of Quality

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I’m back in Tokyo, after a few days in Kyoto and Kobe, where Internet access proved a bit sketchy.

I’ve eaten highly marbled, domestic beef many, many times since I arrived in Japan (the hospitality here is amazing, and everyone wants to feed the beef lady…well…beef!), and I’ve often wondered how domestic producers get beef to A-5.

Yesterday, I learned all about it at a Waygu feedlot about two hours outside of Kobe city. With a capacity of 1000 head, all under what I would call hay shed structures, I saw animals from six months to 30 months old. (Disclaimer: I’m not a feeder, so I ask my feeder friends to please go easy on me with the technical details as I describe what I saw. I’m guessing I missed some things, and sometimes the technical translation became challenging.)

Cattle barn. No regulation on runoff or scrapings exists in Japan.

Cattle barn. No regulation on runoff or scrapings exists in Japan.

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Pen identification.

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We noticed how immaculately clean the place was–again, demonstrating the pride in work I see everywhere in Japan. I’m pretty sure they do most of the cleaning with this straw broom.

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Randy: “These bales are so small, I’ll bet they would fit into my suitcase!” Oat hay on the left, Timothy on the right (for you forage novices out there).

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Gentle, curious dispositions speak to the fact that most animals have been handled individually before arriving at the feedlot. Many wear nose rings with a handle attached as well.

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Feed containing wine by-products from a Kobe winery.

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Composing system for manure. The drill operates on a timed program.

Animals receive a starter ration from six to 15 months, that consists solely of roughage. The lot imports high-quality Timothy hay from Anderson in Washington State, paying $.50 USD per kilo (yes, I said per kilo) for it. In addition, cattle receive oat hay, vitamin supplement as well as access to mineral block.

At 16 months through 27 months, the grower ration kicks in. This consists of oat hay, wet distillers mash, wine mash made from winery byproducts (an extra special treat provided at this feedlot because it produces solely a branded product called Kobe Wine Beef), fescue, soy syrup (this is what I call it, because I had trouble getting the gist of what it was. I asked if it were molasses, and the manager said yes, but made from soy) and sugar cane concentrate they get from an American company in South America. I saw very little corn in this ration, as I sifted through it.

From 16 to 21 months, the lot withholds vitamin A, which they told me encourages intramuscular fat deposit. They track vitamin A by random sample blood test on a regular basis to make sure levels are falling appropriately.

From 28 months to 30 months, a finishing ration increases corn (but not by as much as I expected).

The extended feeding time caused me to ask about input costs. While they didn’t have labor costs handy, they did tell me that it costs about $4,000 per animal in feed (24 months at the lot/$4,000 for a monthly cost of roughly $167 per animal). With the extremely high cost of calves, the feeder can have about $7,000 into an animal by the time it goes to market. However, carcasses can sell for $10,000 or so (again, for my feeder friends, all numbers are approximate).

From the feedlot, we went to eat (hey, who’s surprised I’m eating again?!) at a Kobe beef restaurant back in Kobe city–Ishidaya. Let’s just say I didn’t need supper.

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I wish the light weren’t so weird on this piece of Kobe beef, so you could see the marbling. A-5.

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Three perfect pieces, accompanied by grilled garlic, mustard, sea salt, plum salt and coarse pepper, served on a beautiful piece of handmade Kobe pottery.

Random photos of the day:

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A bakery displays cakes in Kyoto Station. Talk about over-achievers!

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We stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan) where we slept on a Japanese futon mattress, and I enjoyed the baths. This is the robe I wore into the bath space. Note to CBB staffers: This shall not appear in any upcoming Board slide show!

 

Embracing My Inner Fogey

What is courtesy?

As a teenager, I served as a page in the Maryland General Assembly. For the first time, my thoughts appeared in print–an AP story on a bill currently under debate dealing with ratings on racy material like movies and books. The bill was among the earliest attempts at the rating system we now practice in the U.S. for movies (R, PG-13, PG). Those arguing in favor of restricting such material called it “pornography.” When asked by a reporter to define “pornography,” one of the Congressmen said something I’ll never forget, “Believe me, I’ll know it when I see it.” Not a viable definition for regulation, surely, but a no-nonsense answer and a personal hard-core truth–by our own individual definitions, we know it when we see it.

Pornography completely aside, I’ve been reminded of that quote since I arrived in Tokyo yesterday afternoon. But with reference to a completely different (dare I say “opposite”) topic–courtesy. I may not be able to define it–but I know it when I see it, and it’s rampant in Tokyo.

At home, I often wonder if I am a natural fogey, or if I have gently aged in that direction. Television shows (mostly the nightly “news”) rub my consciousness raw with yelling, name-calling and cynicism. Folks who have never met me assail my professional integrity through written and recorded accusations of whitewashing, lack of knowledge, croney-ism and fraud. Reporters pass along these apparently irresistible (and irresponsible) bombs although they, too, haven’t met met me, they don’t bother to call me either. Just buying groceries involves episodes of parents screaming at children, drivers using middle digits over parking places to save three feet of walking and folks blindly cutting of my disabled mother, who uses a cart to get around the store.

In short, I suffer from lack of courtesy in daily life. Tokyo, in a few short hours, is like a soothing balm to those raw welts.

“When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

Tokyo is the cleanest city I’ve ever seen. Now, I’m not a true global city aficionado, preferring open spaces and green expanses to concrete. But I’ve been to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris, Sao Paulo, New York, Los Angeles and a few others. When I asked Yama-san and Hijikata-san, my gracious hosts at supper last night, about it, they explained that the people of Tokyo are proud of the city, take the time not only to care to it, but also invest the money to make sure it is clean and presentable. From bus to taxi to hotel rooms, to me, this is a sign of old-fashioned (I wish it were new-fashioned) courtesy. And a far cry from both New York and Paris (where my first impression was of a metro stop that smelled so strongly of urine, it nearly rendered me unconscious).

Last night, we visited a casual dining (Izakaya) restaurant for supper. Here were the daily specials, in case you want to check them out:

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Fortunately, the regular menu had full-color photos! Also fortunately, Yama-san ordered for us. The first thing on the table (a free appetizer) consisted of a small plate of roast beef, potatoes, carrots and roasted daicon radishes. I’ve only had this veggie raw and grated, so experiencing it cooked was new to me. I do have to say, I prefer it raw. But I was glad to see beef on the plate, first thing.

This meal contained many sharable dishes, including (sorry, grandma Dixie) some most delicious crispy fried chicken strips (I’m not a big fan of chicken) and the fattest chunk of pork I’ve ever imbibed whole (including my favorite, thick-sliced bacon from Rossman Farms). Yama san complimented me on my use of chopsticks, which I take as another sign of incredible courtesy, since I’d just fired a slippery slice of avocado across the table.

On the walk over to the restaurant, we made a quick stop into Lawson’s, a convenience store near our hotel, to take a look at the shelves. Yama explained that Lawson’s caters to young female customers by offering smaller portion, pre-packaged meals, and also low-calorie sweets. (I guess guys don’t like sweets as much? I don’t think my husband got that memo!) My schedule includes a thorough review of convenience stores and the beef’s opportunities in the”bento box” category. At the Beef Board’s planning meetings last week, I enjoyed hearing producer leaders discuss the growing popularity of bento boxes on American menus, as part of the American consumers’ demand for convenience and taste in one package.

Beef Bento Box

On the walk back, we stopped by the prime minister’s residence to wave and say hi. The guards didn’t seem overly impressed with our courtesy in that instance.

Prime Minister residence

Today, we have a full day of meetings and visits, including one that came up last night addressing domestic beef pricing in Japan, a visit with the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel, the chairman of Zensho and dinner with Takeichi san (1995 Eisenhower Fellow) hosted by Mr. Masami NAKAMURA, president of the Japan Management Association.