Here in the US, food lobbies hold a surprising amount of sway. In the 1960s, the sugar industry purportedly paid off scientists to vilify fat, and not the sweet stuff, in influential reports that have shaped entire generations of Americans’ views on nutrition. More recently, representatives of the dairy industry have petitioned the FDA to limit the term “milk” to mammal-, not nut-, derived beverages. But the groups that hold the most sway on the Hill are likely the powerful meat lobbies, which over the past 50 years have made inroads in Washington and have succeeded in weakening or preventing many proposed meat safety initiatives that would make business more complicated—and more expensive—for the big pork, beef and chicken producers.
Ordinarily, Big Meat’s efforts are domestic, focusing on pricey marketing campaigns that urge Americans to eat more burgers and steaks and on pressuring administration officials to protect meat’s image, such as when, earlier this year, the US Cattlemen’s Association asked the USDA to restrict the term “meat” to flesh only, and not allow its use on the labeling of plant-based alternatives like Beyond Meat. But in a gutsy, and seemingly propaganda-like, move, the US pork and beef lobbies recently held a series of four cooking classes in Shanghai, where they targeted the 20-to-40-year-old set, praising American meat’s flavor and nutrition and serving it up in recipes such as brats with sauerkraut and a classic all-American burger.
According to the very niche publication National Hog Farmer, the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF), whose stated mission is to “create new opportunities and develop existing international markets for US beef, pork, lamb and veal,” headed to the cosmopolitan Chinese city to extol the virtues of these American victuals. During the four classes, held in August and September, chefs led class participants in the creation of meat dishes both local, like Cantonese-style BBQ pork, and from further afield, like Japanese pork tonkatsu over rice. The classes were funded by the powerful pork lobby the National Pork Board and the influential beef lobby the Beef Checkoff Program.
Ming Liang, USMEF’s marketing director in China, told MUNCHIES that the classes were meant to promote the healthfulness of American beef and pork to a population that’s increasingly interested in purchasing, and serving, imported meat.
“Educational and interactive communication with consumers is an important way to convey the quality characteristics of US meat, such as how easy of these products can be prepared and how delicious they are even when using simple cooking methods,” he said. “Our message is that everyone can be a "top chef" with the right product and proper preparation.”
To really hammer the point home, a dietitian present at each class shared the health benefits offered by the US-raised meats.
I don’t know about you, but for me, the term “healthy” conjures, say, a Sweetgreen salad, not a slice of rare roast beef. But as the events were led by an organization whose goal is to secure robust export markets for US meat, it makes sense that they’d emphasize the foods’ healthfulness—as well as its superior flavor.
“USMEF chose recipes that highlight the original flavor of US meat, which deliver a great dining experience with very little marinating or added flavors,” Liang said.
Each of the four classes attracted a group of urban millennials—“teachers, doctors, bank employees and other young professionals,” according to Liang—those participants were instructed to get the word out over WeChat, China’s most popular messaging and social media platform. Those who shared photos and information about the classes online were gifted chef aprons and cutting boards by the class organizers.
“The idea behind the rewards was to encourage attendees to spread the good word about their experience with US meat, and WeChat is a very easy and effective way to generate positive ‘word-of-mouth,’” Liang explained.
China is a hugely important export market for American meat producers. In the second half of 2017 alone, beef exports to China were valued at $31 million. But for years, the US beef lobbies were frustrated by China’s refusal to import US beef altogether. Starting in 2003, when mad cow disease was found in the American beef supply, China enacted a ban that remained in place until last summer. But just as the market opened up again, and US steaks and chops began flowing over Chinese borders, this summer China announced a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on US beef and pork after Trump started a trade war by slapping China with $200 billion worth of Chinese-made goods including steel and solar panels.
Now that China is again making it difficult for US pork and beef producers to get their valuable meats into Chinese hands, it makes sense that those producers want to get Chinese eaters hooked on American meat; perhaps their demand for it could help stabilize the vulnerable export market.
But Joe Schuele, vice president of communications for USMEF, insisted that the cooking classes were not held in response to China’s announcement of retaliatory tariffs.
“The tariffs are an obstacle for US pork and beef exports, and USMEF hopes to see China's tariff rates return to normal soon,” he told MUNCHIES. “But this program is not related to that issue.”
Even if they’re not related, the promotional, US-meat-is-delicious-and-nutritious classes could certainly help boost the profile of American meat abroad. And given China’s spotty record with food safety—including 2013 incidents in which local pork dealers allegedly hauled dead pig carcasses floating in the Huangpu River and processed them for sale, and Xi’an-area producers crafted “fake beef” from pork, paraffin wax and industrial salts, it seems likely that an affluent, urban population might be more inclined to purchase meat that meets the US’s (somewhat) more rigorous safety standards. And for Shanghai residents that missed the first round of classes, USMEF said it plans to hold another series next year, so there will be plenty of opportunity ahead to scarf—and WeChat—delicious, nutritious American meats.