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Responsible Food Producers Don't Cry Wolf to Consumers PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Thursday, 17 February 2005

Shrill, Unwarranted Attacks on Consumer Confidence in Beef Hard To Understand

Edi. Note: We are running this lengthy story all at once because we know you want this information ASAP, given the importance and the nearness of the March 7 Final Rule implementation.

Where does one begin assessing R-CALF's latest attack (2/10/05 news release) on the beef industry? Consider:

  • Irresponsible, scare mongering comments about food safety that no ethical food producer would utter without irrefutable, scientific proof.
  • Incorrectly implying that the Canadian under-30-month cattle would have different SRMs removed than U.S. cattle.
  • Incorrectly stating that the OIE has standards for importing cattle that the USDA is ignoring.
  • Equating the BSE situation in Canada - 4 cases in an adult herd of 12 to 14 million - with the over 184,000 cases in the UK out of 12 million head, albeit over a longer period.
  • The lack of common sense and proper procedure regarding disagreements or questions within an industry instead of in the media and the courts.
  • R-CALF's apparent determination to establish the U.S. as a country where animal health regulations and food safety rules are based on unfounded fears and superstition rather than proven science.
  • R-CALF's ignoring of the real size of the Canadian market and the real cattle numbers in favor of pronouncements of a "flood" of beef and cattle that do not exist.
  • R-CALF's incredible steps in taking over for Public Citizen, Consumer Federation and PETA in warning consumers not to eat U.S. beef because it's not safe.

Regarding the last point, it is interesting to consider what the reaction would have been if PETA had made the statements contained in R-CALF's 2/10/05 attack on the consumer confidence in beef. I think the palpable rage in the beef industry would have stretched from coast to coast. Somehow, R- CALF seems to get a pass when it comes to facts and outrageous statements.

Take the irresponsibility of raising food safety concerns where they do not exist. It is accepted scientific fact world wide that when the Specified Risk Materials (SRM) are removed, even the beef from an animal that had been infected would be safe to eat, much less the nearly all animals in the U.S. and Canada that are not infected. So why does R-CALF's Bill Bullard say the USDA's decision will "continue to pose health risks to U.S. consumers...?" Continue? So we're risking U.S. consumers' health already? Not according to any science we've seen. Where is the proof? Neither science, nor government authorities nor consumers think so - no thanks to R-CALF.

What about Bullard's claim that USDA's Final Rule on Canada "will subject U.S. consumers to an increased BSE risk for the first time in histo..." Wait a minute, in the last sentence he said "continued risk." How could consumers be suffering continued risk if the increased risk will occur for the first time in history next March?

Bullard then said USDA will be allowing the importation of products that, "do not even meet international standards recommended for countries meeting Canada's BSE risk classification."

That is simply not true. The OIE (World Organization for Animal Health), the internationally recognized expert organization, has issued recommendations for veterinary authorities to use in evaluating exporting countries in order to set their own standards. OIE does not issue "international standards," according to statements from the OIE and USDA. And what are the OIE's recommendations?

" is not recommended that a ban be placed on the import of live cattle, even if the BSE status of the exporting country is determined to be high," David Wilson said. He is head of the International Trade Department at OIE. And USDA has determined Canada to be a minimal risk country. Either way, Bullard's statement about the international "standards" is in error, according to the OIE. R-CALF insists on evaluating Canada as a high risk country like the UK, with no justification. The numbers do not justify it, nor do historical feeding practices, import rules or surveillance.

R-CALF's release also said, "USDA is only asking that tonsils and intestines be removed from slaughtered Canadian be..." referring to under-30- month animals. Only? That's just what the USDA requires of U.S. packers for the same age cattle. R- CALF is implying to U.S. consumers that Canada will not be subjected to the same standards. That is not true. And much of the beef imported is slaughtered by the same packers that handle tons of U.S. beef every year.

Bullard also said current policy "completely protects U.S. consumers" (are these the same ones under continued health risks?) because we currently utilize strict import controls to "avoid completely" BSE risks. Protection of U.S. consumers comes from the total program of SRM removal, ruminant feed ban and surveillance program. If these programs were not in place, it wouldn't make any difference if we kept imports out or not. It is possible to develop our own cases of BSE - while the risks are minimal to animals and non-existent for humans.

But R-CALF continually throws together imports of cattle (animal disease problem), the safety of beef consumption here and in Canada (food safety non- issue because of SRM removal) and COOL (marketing non-issue because normally 90 percent of fresh beef in U.S. is U.S.-raised) all in one pot to generate a stew of tangled issues to try to confuse and damage the industry and scare consumers away from beef. Confusion, especially among our consumers, is not what we need. Even worse is some group continually telling consumers they are in danger now and that the USDA - the credible entity recognized by consumers as their food protector - is going to make things worse.

R-CALF's professed fear of BSE in Canada is predicated on the assumption that Canada is another UK, that the four cases (counting the Washington State cow born in Canada) are just the tip of an as yet undiscovered iceberg. Yet the UK reported a total of 446 BSE cases in 1987, the first year reported vs. two in Canada (including the Washington State cow) (OIE data). That rate is 220 times higher. The second year of mandatory UK reporting, 1988, yielded 2,514 cases, not comparable to Canada's one in its second year. That's a ratio of over 2,500 to 1. In the peak years of 1990-95, the UK reported 14,000 to 37,000 cases a year. There is no comparison.

It is also important to realize that the UK in the late '80s and early '90s was still discovering what BSE was, learning control measures and having difficulty securing all the cooperation it needed from packers, renderers and farmers who didn't understand the gravity of the situation. They were the unfortunate pioneers in the BSE wars, and no country before or since has experienced anything similar. This began nearly 20 years ago, on an island that used much more meat and bone meal than North America because of the relative lack of soybean meal and other protein. And they have four times the number of sheep as cattle, totally different from North America. It is suspected by some that scrapie in sheep could have been the original source of a mutation resulting in the BSE organism in cattle.

Why the concentration of cases in Alberta? For one, Alberta has around 40 percent of the cattle in Canada, more than twice as many as any other province. More importantly, Tom Field Ph.D. from Colorado State University pointed out that western Canada has a comparatively small number of renderers and feed mills. That had the funnel effect of concentrating any BSE-infected carcasses through a few rendering plants and then, with a few feed mills selling feed far and wide, had a fanning-out effect of the BSE-infectious material in feed. Field was commenting at a news conference reporting the findings of NCBA's recent fact-finding mission to Canada. He commented that his experience in animal science and statistics, on top of the comprehensive control system in Canada, gave no credence to contentions that Canada was another UK.

Lost in all of this is the critical need for someone to step up and set science-based standards for worldwide trade from countries with minimal BSE risk. It is imperative that the U.S. be the one to take this lead and USDA has done so, a) making sure the precedent-setting regulations are science-based and b) making sure such science-based regulations are in place and could more likely be applied to us in case we ever discover a native BSE case.

We must have an animal-health regulatory framework based on science that politics and trade can operate within. Establishing that regulatory framework, setting animal health import standards is a proper function of governments. The Constitution specifically reserves the right to negotiate treaties with other countries to the federal government. It is not the function of individual organizations or individual packers to decide the framework or standards. It is their job to maximize sales and consumer satisfaction within the framework.

Cattle-Fax analysis of the numbers of the net effect of opening the border to Canadian live cattle and importing the beef we already bring in, shows a rough four percent net increase in supply of beef, considering imports and exports. While a number to watch, and some short-term impact on prices is to be expected, it is not a "flood." Much of the impact has already been absorbed in the market as imports of Canadian boxed beef increased in 2004 to replace fed cattle supplies.

And the numbers of imports will shrink from now on, as the import ban has engendered major packer capacity increases in Canada. It is projected that by 2007 they will be self-sufficient in packing capacity. This will damage the profitability of smaller U.S. plants along the border and affect the total capacity necessary in the U.S. Those packers are the buyers of cattle from feedyards in the U.S. It will also affect U.S. packers selling beef into Canada because Canadian packers will be processing more cattle. The ban has had a permanent, irreversible effect on trade flows between Canada and the U.S.

As for the wisdom of attacking U.S. consumer confidence in beef, has anyone noticed that, except for some organic extremists, no mainstream competitive meats or proteins have tried to use BSE as a marketing tactic against the beef industry? There are two main reasons for that. One, there is no factual evidence of a problem, so there is no basis for marketing statements for which they would get called on the carpet. Second, savvy food marketers realize the perception of overall food safety is absolutely critical to all food. Food safety perception problems in one segment have a spillover effect, scaring consumers to some extent about all food. The entire food chain has a stake in protecting consumer confidence in the entire food system

R-CALF has had no long-term, close familiarity with consumer marketing and perception. This is in sharp contrast to the long-time national promotion organizations and the federation of state beef councils. They have had the experience and cooperative idea exchanges with retailers, packers and foodservice representatives who talk to real users daily.

R-CALF doesn't seem to understand the concept of consumer confidence at all. If they did, they wouldn't keep risking it in a rising tempo of attacks, seemingly trying to damage the industry from which they make a living. Consumer confidence in beef is consumers because accurate information about their health and safety is essential to peace of food producers because of their responsibility to produce safe food and to protect their market. Food safety is no place for hyperbole, exaggeration, misinformation, misinterpretation and internecine turf wars. Let's hope some folks wise up and realize publicity is not worth wrecking consumer confidence for everyone.

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