Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. A safety warning that can be found on almost all passenger-side mirrors on vehicles in America today, it's also a phrase that Henry Zerby often uses when it comes to observing trends coming in consumer protein demand.
"There are some things coming at us we are not going to outrun. We will need to address these challenges rather than simply take a defensive stance against them," Zerby told attendees at this month's Ohio Pork Congress, held in Columbus. "I'm passionate about what we do, but I also understand we have to be proactive and think about how we're going to address many of these things in the future. Obviously, agriculture is not the only contributor to many of challenges, however, we can be part of the solution."
As vice president of protein procurement and innovation for Wendy's Quality Supply Chain Co-op, Zerby is responsible for the supply chain development and acquisition of animal protein products for Wendy's. He also serves as a member of Wendy's Animal Welfare Council. Prior to joining QSCC in 2016, Zerby served on The Ohio State University's faculty for 17 years, where his research focused on enhancing the efficiency of food animal production while simultaneously improving the inherent qualities of the resulting meat products.
Zerby says his job at QSCC is really to follow the Wayne Gretzky-type philosophy, "skate to where the puck's going to be," as he examines what consumer wants will be five to 10 years down the road. His role is to inform the company and help supply chain partners understand the complexity and opportunities around animal protein products with an eye on sustainability, antibiotics, animal welfare and plant-based proteins.
"I don't get into the debate between plants versus animals because I really think about it as plants and animals. When I think about the food needs we have across this globe, it will take plants and animals," Zerby says. "As I think about the discussions taking place around plant-based proteins, I agree that we need to make sure these products are safe and wholesome, and there is equity in these types of regulatory safeguards. But to simply make a blanket statement that we shouldn't have those things, I view it a little bit differently.
"It is important to ask and understand what consumers are seeking as they sample plant-based proteins; was it convenience, health, curiosity, etc. These are the aspects I focus on as I evaluate what is happening in the marketplace. If health was the driver, then I need to understand how to make my product more healthful or more nutritious, thus addressing consumer desires. I believe we need to continue to shift towards pull-through marketing systems, not push-through."
A meat scientist first, Zerby often touts the benefits of including meat in a balanced diet. "The nutritional benefits of meat such as protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins, coupled with its clean label are very desirable and marketable attributes," he says. He also notes that having a balanced diet in a vegan manner is attainable; it just takes a lot more discipline.
While all eyes have been on filling China's pork shortage due to African swine fever, Zerby says don't underestimate the Chinese pork production system. Zerby believes that when China's pork industry recovers, it will be larger, more organized, more sophisticated and more efficient in the future. "So yes, there are some current opportunities, but let's not forget how resourceful people can be in their times of great need," Zerby says. "The export market potential is exciting and several new trade deals will be a big part of balancing out supply and demand cycles.
"U.S. pork is not the only shop in town, when we look at the amount of protein going into China to fill the void left in the wake of ASF. Other protein sources such as beef and poultry are in demand. We need to understand as an industry, what's happening in South America and what their resources are as their industries are capitalizing on China's demand. In the latter months of 2019, Brazil and Argentina had several additional meat processing facilities approved to export to China; they have more facilities approved than we do.
"China also recognizes it needs to invest in other regions of the world to help ensure it can supply the future protein needs of its growing population — sheer numbers, but also an expanding middle-class. To that end, China has already started making moves in the global marketplace," Zerby says. "They've got a game plan; they're expanding their presence through different strategies in many countries to provide a means to feed their people."
Some of those investments include infrastructure in U.S. pork processing systems. Through these investments, China is obtaining access to some of the most efficient systems in the world, and Zerby says with the Chinese much more aware of food safety issues than a decade ago, he expects to see them take what they learn from these investments and implement these strategies in China's domestic systems.
Zerby cautions there are also some important lessons the U.S. pork industry can learn from other proteins right here at home. Zerby referenced the example of the decades-old War-on-Fat and its contributing impact on beef demand during the '80s and '90s. "We need to take a lesson from the War-on-Fat and the importance of consumer perceptions and desires and apply it around topics such as public health, wellness and sustainability, so we mitigate the risk of experiencing similar outcomes," Zerby says.
Finally, Zerby says he realizes his talks aren’t received as motivational speeches; his goal is to get industry members to start thinking about potential solutions to the challenges that currently face us and the new ones that have yet to come.
"Transparency is the currency of trust. In many areas we continue to have a solid foundation in trust, but in some circles, we have lost a bit of that trust. We all have a role to play in both regaining the trust we lost and continuing to reinforce the trust we have," Zerby says. "You can help shape the story that we tell about animal proteins in the future. Whether it's about plant-based protein, biosecurity, animal welfare, traceability or all these topics, you're a part of that story."