Good Morning America
Tom Johnston, managing editor, August 2015
BRENT CATOR, president of Canada’s Cardinal Meat Specialists, says it’s time for the meat industry to wake up to the changes on the not-so-distant horizon.
BRENT CATOR WILL FLAT-OUT SHAME YOU.
Those who have attended industry conferences and joined his popular “Issues, Answers and Action” sessions know this. Continue talking at your table after he’s asked for conversation to end, and you’ll soon find him hovering over your shoulder with a microphone and bringing the entire room’s attention to your oblivious rambling. Cator, shall we say, commands attention. And his company, Cardinal Meat Specialists in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, has been getting plenty of it, particularly for its advances in burger forming and in sealed-environment cooking. Natural Texture Forming (NTF), Cardinal’s patented process that is designed to cook burgers to a safe 160 degrees F without drying them out, has been racking up awards from retail and foodservice customers. And the company’s proprietary Advanced Protein Portioning (APP), a high-speed, high-volume line of combined technologies that portions and cooks animal proteins in sealed packages, is offering them a look into the future of meat processing’s culinary possibilities. With these tools in his belt, Cator’s confidence is obvious. He’ll even admit to sounding arrogant when he says he doesn’t quite know how competitors will catch up, but he’s honestly unsure. He is sure, however, that intensifying consumer demands for safe and minimally processed products is going to require the same kind of thinking and capital investment in new technologies. Cator sat down recently with Meatingplace to discuss the future of the meat industry, and why it’s not OK to tell consumers “just cook it.”
Meatingplace: You tell it like it is. What’s the state of the meat processing industry today?
CATOR: The industry, particularly in the U.S., is up for a big awakening. I think that over the next 10 years there will be a dramatic change. When you look at the technologies internationally ... there are facilities that have proven out absolutely new ways to do things — and yet we have an industry that is still working with a lot of old technology. Some of the biggest players are so vested in those capabilities that it’s really tough for them to make that kind of change. But ... based on large consumer trends, they’re just going to have to.
Meatingplace: What kinds of consumer trends?
CATOR: The biggest trend is transparency. Even if a plant has all the safety elements, but it’s not perceived that way and ‘Joe Public’ couldn’t say, ‘I’m OK with that,’ then the reality is it isn’t going to work and things have to change. The very real thing is that equipment, capabilities and processes have moved so far forward, and there are operations that just haven’t embraced them because they’re busy f lling product with the capabilities they have. A lot of industry leaders today aren’t investing in new capabilities out there. If it’s slaughter which is one of the places that is going to see a huge change, the reality is that means redesigning massive plants.With the amount of money that’s out there from people who want to invest in the food industry, I think there are going to be some aggressive plays to reinvent and just start from scratch on how things are processed. And I think that anybody who is going to make that kind of investment isn’t going to do it based on one guy’s thoughts … they’re going to find the best in everything from around the world and deploy that.
Meatingplace: That sounds exciting.
CATOR: It is exciting. I think it’s going to be scary for a lot of players, and I think it’s going to surprise the hell out of some. At Cardinal, we have a[n] innovative approach to a lot of different technologies… instead of competing with what’s there today, it’s how do you reinvent that deliverable and, by the way, at a better cost. And technology advancements, whether in equipment, raw materials or ingredients, have come so far we are now doing things that weren’t possible before, and so there really is no competition because nobody else has it. But when you break into absolutely new ways, even when you bring customers something at a lower cost, they’re confused. That’s a dynamic that the industry is going to have to go through. At Cardinal we’re trying to lead that.
Meatingplace: What are your top challenges today?
CATOR: We have taken sealed environment cook technologies to another level, which has allowed for better-eating products that are more repeatable, don't have to have preservatives and can be done fresh. We’re creating products that give the consumer something they feel is, believe is and authentically is less processed. Our biggest challenge is getting people educated ....On the restaurant end, there are lot of organizations that invested in a lot of equipment that chefs needed in order to do R&D. The reality is, on scale, there’s a point where those restaurants shouldn’t be doing that at all; it should be done at the processor level. Now that the processors are catching up with the technologies, one of the hardest things is getting the restaurant operations to understand that they don’t need all that capital anymore.
Meatingplace: What’s technology’s role in advancing your company’s success?
CATOR: We are a manufacturer first. And there’s no doubt that unique technologies are core to Cardinal, and always looking for what’s next before it’s even needed is key. In that, usually I find it’s not so much a single technology; it’s finding different technologies that you combine to be unique for meat processing for our particular customer needs. I don’t like an approach that’s not layered. If it doesn’t have multiple advantages, somebody’s just going to go better-eating products that are more repeatable, don't have to have preservatives and can be done fresh. We’re creating products that give the consumer something they feel is, believe is and authentically is less processed. Our biggest challenge is getting people educated. On the restaurant end, there are lot of organizations that invested in a lot of equipment that chefs needed in order to do R&D. The reality is, on scale, there’s a point where those restaurantsshouldn’t be doing that at all; it should be done at the processor level. Now that the processors are catching up with the technologies, one of the hardest things is getting the restaurant operations to understand that they don’t need all that capital anymore.
The American consumer and the industry still says it’s OK to sell somebody a product not cooked to [160 degrees F] as long as you put a disclaimer on it. That’s completely illogical.”
Meatingplace: What would be an example of such an effort?
CATOR: We took our unique manner of how we make a burger, Natural Texture Forming, and we’ve layered in technologies — for instance, stuffing — that today nobody else can do. If someone wants to catch up, they have to learn how to get the technology. Then they have to learn all the nuances related to how to deploy it. Then on top of that we layered in this stuffing capability we’ve patented. The next evolution of that is maybe sealed-environment cooking on those same items. Now, that’s a multi-layered approach. The customers we’re doing that with, who are prepared to take that kind of risk because it’s something different, are seeing huge returns from it. They’re coming back to us and just saying, ‘OK. How do we do more?’
Meatingplace: Can you explain more about the Natural Texture Forming burger and its food safety benefits?
CATOR: When we brought Natural Texture Forming burgers to the U.S., I had a major mission behind that. The American consumer and the industry still says it’s OK to sell somebody a product not cooked to [160 degrees F] as long as you put a disclaimer on it. That’s completely illogical. The CDC’s been saying for years that this is wrong; the fact that somebody can cover their butt by saying, ‘Hey, eating this could kill ya’ is just wrong. What I wanted to do was find a technology that would cook to 160 degrees and had all the eating qualities that consumers are after. … So we’re truly solving a problem and getting down to the reality behind it, because I think those things are going to catch up to the industry. We’re going to get that communication piece out in a meaningful way because restaurants don’t want recalls anymore, nor do retailers.
Meatingplace: In Canada a rift has opened up between inspectors and the federal government over the level of their employment and of safety in new government protocols. What’s your view on this issue?
CATOR: I can tell you that at our plants we’re not seeing a negative ramification while that’s going on, primarily because we’re taking accountability beyond the federal regulations. I think that’s part of what the industry trend is, that the minimum standard should be the government to protect the public. But I think that processes and systems that go above and beyond are being deployed, and I think those will be the successful companies that won’t need a policeman. As that rolls out, there’s a huge problem because there’s a bunch of people who are counting on their jobs being the policeman. I do believe that will change. And it won’t be limited to Canada. It’s going to happen around the world. I think the government’s role in food safety will change dramatically. The interplay you’re hearing now is the start of that.
Meatingplace: What do you think the industry and the federal inspection regulators have learned from the historic XL Foods recall?
I think the industry learned a lot. In fairness to the government, the government has a role and in many ways was asked to go beyond its role, in my mind. XL gave very little information at that time, so the answers weren’t there for the public on a progressive basis. When there’s a void like that, the government has to react and those aren’t areas in which they get a lot of experience. The government’s collaborative work with the industry since has been huge. They’re going around to ask what we could do differently, how do we learn from it and looking at their international counterparts and talking to them, which didn’t used to happen. I think the government learned a major lesson as far as reaching out, and I do believe the Canadian government is being progressive in that. I do hope what meat plants have learned is you can’t hide or be silent on it. You will disappear. You will evaporate.
Meatingplace: How have you handled food safety scares?
CATOR: We had a recall a few years ago. We handled it up front in the public space. I personally took every consumer call and did not hide from any element of it. At the end of that, for the first time in North America in meat processing, at least that I’m aware of, there were no corrective actions issued to our plant. Normally you can’t even operate after a recall without saying what you’re doing to correct the problem. But everything that could be done in our operation was being done. That’s pretty powerful, first for the government to admit that publicly. Then from that, as an industry, we learned that we can’t just look at our own plant. You have to be aggressive on both ends,
on what’s coming in and how consumers and restaurants are handling product on the other side. I can say our customers have rewarded us with more business.
Meatingplace: What about Target’s failure in Canada? What do you think the business lesson was there?
CATOR: The business lesson I think that gets repeated, and it’s not just Target, is you can’t take an American approach and drop it into Canada and expect that it will work. You have to respect the fact that consumers are different in different places, and you really want to do your homework on what your brand stands for, the fundamentals around it and what you need to adapt depending on cultures or countries you’re going into. That doesn’t mean American brands can’t do incredibly well here in Canada, but if they expect ‘it works here, so it will work there’ without any variations, that’s wrong.
Meatingplace: You were a proud NAMP guy. Now you’re a NAMI guy. What are your thoughts on the consolidation of trade groups so far?
CATOR: It’s early. I think there’ve been some great things that have come with it, particularly the consolidation of talent so that meat guys in different associations are now able to share thoughts instead of competing. I think that consolidation of talent is brilliant. I think there will be some good things that will come from that. My fears relate to two things. A core principle is that every NAMI member has an equal voice, no matter the size of the company. Sticking to that is difficult. The fact is somebody with a lot more constituents normally has a lot more say. If NAMI’s to be successful, it’s going to have to stick to the fact that regardless of size each member has equal say and then not losing the educational aspect. Sometimes it’s easy for a trade association to get involved in large, government initiatives — and yes, a trade association can play a big part in that — but I think there’s a huge educational part that a trade association can do that allows small medium and big companies to learn. And with that dynamic I’m talking about, the industry changing to where all of a sudden the biggest guy out there with old technologies isn’t the player, trade associations need to be aware of that and facilitate shared learning where it’s applicable on an even basis.