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Beef in a can

Sunday, June 8, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Craving a more stable future as a fifth-generation cattleman, Adam Blaue thinks he's found something to sink his teeth into: Marketing tender, ready-to-eat beef -- in a can.

Sound like a bit much to swallow? Blaue, 31, and three dozen other Missouri livestock producers think not, believing the venture has plenty of can-do shelf life -- two to five years, to be precise.

"Any time we mention it, we get good reception," says Blaue, among 39 beef producers from five Missouri counties in Farm Foods Co-op Inc., planning a September startup of a beef-canning plant being built in Montgomery City, 70 miles west of St. Louis. "We're really confident about this."

Members of the 18-month-old co-op expect the site initially to process 1,000 cattle a year, then perhaps 10 times that number over time. In turn, they say, they get a consistent market for their beef while satisfying pent-up demand for convenient precooked meat in a can, the kind of commodity commonplace decades ago before refrigeration.

By Blaue's theory, prisons, nursing homes and schools would love the stuff in bulk, given its storability and resistance to spoiling. Hikers or campers needing beef on the go could just pop the top and chow down. So could hunters perched in a tree or blind.

Stocking up for an approaching snowstorm? Beef in a can -- it's what's for dinner, sans the time-chewing hassle of thawing, then cooking, a block of meat, co-op folks say.

The government-inspected meat, exclusively from cattle raised without steroid and hormone additives or routine antibiotics, would be rid of harmful bacteria through pressure cooking, the co-op's brainchild insists.

"It's gotta be really clean, good beef -- not just run of the mill," says Rick McGee, a retired McDonnell-Douglas engineering manager who advises the co-op. "It's gonna be good food," at a price yet to be determined.

Agriculture blessings

The venture appears to have the blessings of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which in a March news release trumpeted plans for the 4,480-square-foot cannery it says could employ a dozen workers and generate $2 million in gross sales.

"Farmers have got to have a better way to make a living," McGee says, convinced consumers will embrace the convenience of pop-top beef -- as evidenced in his market studies, he insists. "The market potential is mind-boggling, more than we can produce."

It's unclear how much of an appetite such offerings actually attract -- or how much consumers are willing to pay. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says its Economic Research Service keeps no nationwide figures on canned beef, including sales or the number of marketers. The Missouri Beef Industry Council's Steve Taylor says he's unaware of any beef canners, certainly not in Missouri.

But "if you hunt hard, there are mom-and-pop operations" here and there across the country, Blaue says from his family's 160-head farm north of Wellsville.

While American Meat Institute spokesman Dan Murphy says "it's not crazy that someone would think of getting into that market," given the surprisingly large and diverse segment of canned meat, from sandwich spread to Spam.

But in general, small-scale producers may find it challenging to absorb the cost of building and running their own cannery, says Murphy, whose group's 350 members represent 90 percent of the total fresh and processed meat production in the United States.

"Not that it can't be done, but it is a daunting task," Murphy says. "It just makes more sense to put your money into marketing than in construction," opting instead to contract with an outside cannery.

"The capital costs of not only building it but running it will suck you down the drain," Murphy says. "Why do you think there are no small-scale cattle packers around?"

Blaue declined to discuss investment specifics, aside from expectations that construction and first-year operating capital "is going to run close to $750,000," partly offset by grants.

The co-op has contracted with a USDA-inspected processing plant in northeast Missouri to butcher and prepare the beef for canning as part of what Taylor calls the co-op's answer to the "sometimes subjective" market.

"They're frustrated about the traditional market," Taylor says. "They feel like they don't have any control over the price they get for cattle."

Says Blaue: "I think this has the potential to really help us. Once (the business) grows, it's going to make a big difference."


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