Consumers around the world increasingly want adjectives with their beef, and shop based on values as well as value. Keynote speaker Dr. David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College, London, made those points as he kicked off this week’s Global Conference on Sustainable Beef in Banff, Alberta.

In most international markets, Hughes says, consumers see beef as a premium product. They expect it to be more expensive than poultry or pork, but their expectations are high. They look for adjectives such as natural, free-range, hormone free, antibiotic free and yes, sustainably produced.

The conference, co-hosted by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), will explore global, regional and local strategies for improving sustainability in beef production, and how to communicate progress to consumers. Both organizations, and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable beef, which launched in 2015, stress that sustainable beef production should involve all aspects of the beef value chain, with emphasis on production being environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.

Members of the GRSB include major retailers such as McDonald’s, processors such as JBS and Cargill, producer groups such as NCBA ad Certified Angus Beef and non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

Hughes says that surveys have shown about 38% of U.S. consumers will pay more for sustainable products, 34% aren’t sure and 28% will not. Some of those who won’t pay more, he adds, simply expect sustainability to be included in the normal price, and if they perceive it isn’t, they’ll turn to a different product. In addition to traditional competing meats such as pork and poultry, those products increasingly include viable meat substitutes made from vegetable ingredients and alternative such as farmed salmon and other fish.

Even in China, Hughes says, organized health programs steer consumers toward poultry and seafood, and away from red meat. Long-term global demand for meat is strong but volatile, Hughes says. Red meat consumption is the firing line in developed countries, but some consumers will pay more for less, if it comes with the right attributes an assurances. “Never underestimate what consumers value and what they are willing to pay for,” Hughes notes.

A common point of discussion following the morning presentations was that beef producers need to adopt and document improvements in production practices related to sustainability, then tell their story to consumers based on measurable, verifiable progress. However, in addition to the adjectives describing what isn’t there, such as antibiotics, hormones or unethical animal treatment, we need to promote the value that producers add to beef, such as environmental stewardship, animal welfare, food safety and overall social responsibility.

Watch for more on the ongoing discussions of how to measure and monitor progress in beef sustainability on this site as the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef continues this week.