GUEST editorial

Dec 23, 2010
by WLJ

Remembering the cow that stole Christmas

It was the afternoon of Dec. 23, 2003, when the call came in from USDA. Beef industry leadership at the national and state levels had practiced for this moment, but it was still a shock to learn that a cow of Canadian origin in Washington state had tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). By this time, of course, much was known about these misfolded proteins called prions and how to prevent their spread to other cattle via feed. It was also well known that these prions were in no way a threat to human health as long as “specified risk materials,” such as the brain and spinal cord, potentially containing prions were removed during processing and not eaten. The industry-led ban on the importation of cattle and ruminant meat and bone meal from Europe back in 1989 and the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban back in 1997 had prevented BSE from ever getting a foothold in the U.S. In fact, to this day, there has never been a native born case of “classic” style BSE in the U.S. and only two “atypical” positive tests after 20 years of intensive searching for these prions in our cow herd. This successful example shows our producers’ commitment to providing the world’s best and safest beef. Additionally, it is a prime example of how industry-led initiatives working proactively with government partners can make a difference in cattle health and food safety.

Despite our proven success, this Christmas Grinch is the gift that unfortunately keeps on giving.

These prion Christmas ghosts, now seven years past, continue to wreak havoc on our industry, not because of some misplaced consumer sentiment about the safety of American beef, but because governments have struggled mightily to convert the mantle of trade based upon sound science into commercial practice.

Highly-respected beef industry analytical firm Cattle Fax has estimated that 13.5 billion pounds of beef were not exported from the U.S. over the past seven years due to BSE-related trade restrictions. To put this into perspective, this is roughly one-half of a year’s beef production in this country, worth in excess of $25 billion. In today’s dollars, that is about the same as what it would take to purchase about three-fourths of the entire U.S. beef breeding herd in the U.S. Keep in mind, much of this beef was still produced and consumed domestically at lower prices, but the economic shock of it has reduced the size of this mighty industry and cost America thousands of jobs.

Seven years after the ‘cow that stole Christmas,’ BSE has slid down significantly on the list of economic forces shaping our industry. This is a testament to each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of ranchers, cattle feeders and all those who work hard each day making the safety of U.S. beef job top priority as it is brought from the pasture to the plate.

Our customers outside the U.S. also recognize the pride and quality of our product, demonstrated by the fact that the value of U.S. beef exports in 2010 is on pace to finally exceed the $3.86 billion record of pre-BSE 2003. The ability of the American cattlemen and women to cultivate new customers in Mexico, Asia, Russia and Egypt and to rebuild the consumer confidence in South Korea and Taiwan is a powerful statement regarding the resiliency of everyone in this business.

There is still much to be done. China is still completely blocking access to U.S. beef. Japan’s completely meritless 20-month age restriction and several other non-science based restrictions in other countries are still stopping at least $1 billion in additional sales of U.S. beef around the world. This lack of market access appears to be more about the process of government-to-government interaction than science.

Trade in agricultural products has expanded tremendously since countries via the World Trade Organization have reduced tariffs and opened markets. U.S. beef producers have benefitted tremendously from these agreements. Yet, one of the unique challenges in agricultural trade today involves the inability for governments to resolve sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to trade. It is frustrating beyond belief to cattlemen who understand that World Organization for Animal Health international guidelines are the template to be followed, but that few nations have stepped up to the plate to follow them.

Despite these and numerous other challenges, U.S. beef producers have been a resilient and generally profitable group over the past seven years. They’re a group that despises subsidies and prefers instead to grow demand for their product by efficiently producing what the consumer wants. They’re also a group that increasingly understands that 96 percent of their potential customers do not reside in the U.S. and that future growth in their industry is tied to building relationships with customers overseas.

Seven years later, the legacy of the ‘cow that stole Christmas’ may be that America’s beef producers have a renewed sense of commitment both to the American consumer who stuck with us during those uncertain hours and to folks in other countries who may be experiencing the best beef in the world for the first time. Our message today is simply to say thank you and we hope you enjoy the holidays with beef. We’ll proudly make more for you. — Steve Foglesong [Steve Foglesong is a cattle producer from Illinois and currently serves as president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.]