Columbia, Mo. The national beef industry has enlisted college students across the country in its public relations fight for America's hearts, minds and stomachs.
The Masters of Beef Advocacy program also recruits farmers, ranchers, high-end chefs and school dietitians to spread the gospel of red meat consumption. But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which started the outreach effort two years ago, has placed a strong emphasis on the Twitter generation. At least 20 percent of the nearly 2,200 program graduates are age 21 or younger.
The online program — called MBA in a nod to the more commonly known graduate business degree — is available in 47 states and particularly popular at public land-grant universities with strong agricultural schools, such as the University of Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas State and Western Kentucky.
"We know what the science is," said Dennis Fennewald, a fifth-generation farmer, former bull semen salesman and beef production instructor at Missouri. "The emotional part, that really is being controlled by people who don't know or understand our science."
Fennewald and professors at other schools typically offer the six-hour course as extra credit rather than a required assignment. Students who finish it are expected to speak to school groups and civic clubs or build online buzz through social media.
Missouri senior Erin Mohler and other members of the school's Collegiate Cattlewomen's club spent a recent afternoon sharing their "Meet Your Meat" message with passing students on a busy pedestrian mall.
Volunteers sold rib-eye steak sandwiches from a portable food trailer while a 1,600-pound Simmental beef cow named Summer grazed nearby in a temporary enclosed pen.
Students passed out recipes for Moroccan-style beef kabobs and tenderloin salad with cranberries and pears, while other brochures touted beef's high content of zinc, iron, protein and other essential minerals and vitamins.
Mohler, a senior animal sciences major whose parents live in Maryland and own 40 cattle on a north Missouri "hobby farm," said her perspective isn't always embraced on campus. Yet she remains undeterred.
"A lot of people have a hard time grasping why I would promote the cattle industry," she said. "More people need to understand where their food comes from. You eat three times a day."
The reactions to Summer and her handlers were decidedly mixed. Last year, the "Meet Your Meat" mavens convinced several passers-by to renounce their vegetarian ways, group member Kaitlyn Lee said.
Freshman David Adams had a different reaction, calling the display "kind of gross."
"I don't want to see an animal and then go buy a sandwich made from its relative," he said. "I guess I'd like to remain oblivious."
The grassroots campaign is just one part of the beef industry's effort to reverse a five-decade slide in meat consumption by Americans. Seed money came from the $1 per head of domestic and imported live cattle that producers pay under a 1985 federal law. Fifty cents of each $1 goes to the national cattle group's Beef Promotion and Research Board.
Pork producers use their $1 surcharge to operate a similar program called "Operation Main Street."
Focusing the outreach on college campuses — usually considered friendlier terrain for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and like-minded groups — is an obvious and needed approach, said Daren Williams, executive communications director for the Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"There's a political, social and economic discussion going on about food production," he said. "(Beef producers) have felt left out of the discussion."
At Western Kentucky University, animal sciences professor Nevil Speer offers the Masters of Beef Advocacy curriculum as an extra-credit assignment for the mostly freshmen and sophomores in his introductory-level classes. The units cover beef safety, production techniques, animal care, environmental stewardship, nutrition and the national program that provides marketing and research money.
"It's not a coercive type of thing," Speer said. "It's an external and an objective voice about the food system ... It's not set up as propaganda."
Nathan Runkle disagrees. The executive director of Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, which promotes a vegetarian diet, said that "a more accurate title for this offensive program would be the Master of BS."
"Centers for higher learning should not become dumping grounds for propaganda programs that push increased profits for an industry that subjects animals to extreme cruelty and exploitation," he said. "Cruelty and violence has no place in the classroom."
Speer said he doesn't expect all of his students to embrace the beef industry's viewpoint. Like any good college class, the program ultimately forces students with entrenched views to consider other perspectives, even if they don't agree with them, he said.
"You have all kinds of students going through this program, and all of the sudden they're talking to each other," he said. "As long as we have dialogue going, that's a good thing."