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Perception Is Reality PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Thursday, 06 April 2006
AFF Sentinel Vol.3 #8

Rewarding Food Safety Misperceptions Unthinkable Government Policy

Which of the following statements do you think would best create consumer confidence in U.S.- produced beef?

A. All U.S. beef is safe.

B. No U.S. beef is safe.

C. Some U.S. beef is safe.

If you chose "A," go to the head of the class. Yet there are some involved in U.S. beef production undermining consumer confidence by perpetuating the myth that "C" is the answer.

R-CALF mightily tried to hype what was essentially a question regarding Canadian animal health monitoring systems as an international food safety crisis. Science unquestioningly showed there was no animal health crisis and that food safety was not the issue. R-CALF's go-for-broke game was to create a consumer crisis of confidence in beef safety to cover for the real goal: keeping out Canadian cattle and beef.

The underlying issue was whether setting trade standards was a proper government function, or if it should be turned over to volunteer groups or private companies. Now, Creekstone Farms is challenging that constitutional concept in court.

Creekstone's strategy is similar, but their goal is reversed: to re-open Japanese export markets. They intend to cater to false fears among Japanese consumers that there is something wrong with U.S. beef ... to kowtow to them for ignoring factual science. Creekstone is violating a basic principle of selling food: never cry wolf about the safety of anyone's food product. Food safety is not a negotiable issue in consumers' minds anywhere. If they believe a food product is not safe, price and quality does not matter. Once you have made those measurement standards negotiable and arbitrary -- rather than based on scientific fact -- only chaos and disaster can follow.

What if next month, foreign consumers believe that only beef from polled cattle is safe to eat? Will we adhere to the "customer is always right" theory and begin certifying and testing "polled beef" shipments? Once we teach consumers that we will respond to non-scientific food safety concerns, there is no limit to Pandora's box.

Additionally, what kind of message does that send to Americans, who are 90 percent of our market? What an invitation to the consumer advocates, who are already engaged in conjuring up false issues and objections to meat eating and production systems.

Just as selling cars to Americans touting seatbelts as a defense against car bombs would be neither relevant nor true, selling beef from young animals tested for a disease they cannot carry is a form of consumer deception.

We don't believe Creekstone wants to undermine consumer confidence in U.S. beef. However, that would be exactly the effect. In fact, the court challenge alone fosters doubt.

This issue would have been settled long ago if Japanese bureaucrats and politicians had stuck to their scientific guns, as the U.S. and Canada did. One thing to note: no one we know has ever seen any formal indication from the Japanese government that they would accept U.S. beef from privately tested animals, regardless of that assumption from some quarters. However, Japanese bureaucratic reluctance to buck popular consumer misperceptions, plus pressure from the political opposition, has prolonged this into an excruciating, glacial ordeal. They have deviated from a factual approach in facing an unfamiliar food issue.

We can sympathize with Creekstone's frustration: trying to market quality beef, with a key component of its strategy stalled for years. However, the USDA must continue to separate condition-of-sale food safety issues from marketing efforts. Proper, science- driven, government trade standard functions must be delineated from private marketing initiatives. Our markets -- foreign and domestic -- must rest upon this foundation.

As one official extremely familiar with trade and the Japanese consumer psyche told me at the beginning of this debacle, when the Japanese government tells their consumers American beef is safe, they will believe it.

If, on the other hand, some in the U.S. keep encouraging the perception that not all U.S. beef is safe, the Japanese -- and consumers everywhere -- will believe that. And as we all know, perception may not be the ultimate truth, but it is the ultimate reality.

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 24 June 2006 )
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