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How now mad cow

by A.V. Krebs
Editor, The Agribusiness Examiner

(Monday, Jan. 5, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Legend has it that on October 8,1871 Catherine O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lantern and what followed was the Great Chicago Fire of that year. Likewise, another firestorm involving a cow was recently unleashed immediately prior to the recent Christmas holiday when a Holstein belonging to veterinarian Bill Wavrin's Sunny Dene Ranch's 4000-head herd in Mabton, Washington was found to have been suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.

Fueled by a suddenly aroused media immediate speculation became centered around whether the nation's meat supply had been compromised, from where the cow had originated --- soon to be discovered that it had been shipped in from Alberta, Canada --- and what feed it had been fed in its lifetime.

An excellent compendium of the news relative to what South Dakota state veterinarian Sam Holland recently referred to at the ninth annual Midwest Farm Policy Forum as "the cow that stole Christmas," can be found at: http://www.tricityherald.com/tch/madcow/ .

Nearly lost, however, in the media aftermath of this latest mad cow conflagration were three important points.

First, it was quite a damning indictment of globalization. You have one cow on one farm tucked away on a farm in Washington State that is discovered to have BSE and suddenly your have complete chaos in the world's highly concentrated beef industry.

Second, if dairy farmers were getting a fair price for what they produce they probably wouldn't feel it necessary to squeeze every last penny out of their herd, such as sending "downers" off to the marketplace. But when they have so much invested in one cow and are not getting what they deserve in terms of price for what they produce from that cow they have little choice.

Dairy farmers in Washington State received about $1 to $1.10 per gallon (near, if not, the lowest in the nation)., while it is estimated that it costs about $1.40 to produce a gallon of milk, despite only getting paid roughly the one dollar government-mandated minimum price for that gallon. It is also estimated that dairy farmers in the state continue to carry about $1,500 to $2,000 of debt per cow.

Yet in a recent study by Washington PIRG it was shown that consumers in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area paid an average price of $3.52 per gallon for whole milk in July, 2003 compared to $2.78 nationally, which is the highest in the nation.

In the meantime, during the past 20 years the state has seen its number of dairy farms decrease from 1600 to 600. The August, 2003 Washington PIRG report shows that between January, 2002 and April, 2003 alone the number fell from 628 to 603.

Contributing to this squeeze play is the murky role that the milk processors play in establishing milk prices. As Deborah Robinson, who researched and wrote the WashPIRG report, noted that while the farm price set by the government is public information and retail prices can be observed by any shopper, the prices that processors charge to stores need not be publicly revealed.

We also see in Washington State some grocery chains, notably Safeway, have their own milk-processing plants, presumably giving them greater control over costs and retail prices. But as the leading chains in the food retailing business grow ever larger the struggling dairy farmers are being left to sell to an ever diminishing market.

So the question for dairy producers as with most family farm operations really comes down (once again!!!) to a fair price for what they produce. After chairing a series of eight nationwide farm policy forums on agriculture in 1984 former Texas Agricultural Commissioner and chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Agricultural Council Jim Hightower concluded in his final report:

"When all was said and done, it came down to one word: Price. Other important issues were discussed at the forums sponsored by the DNCAC during the past six months, but the overwhelming consensus among participating farmers was that the other concerns --- overproduction, soil and water conservation, high interest rates, lack of credit, entry by young farmers, the depressed farm service industry, and the farm program's high cost, to name a few --- could and would be solved when farmers received a fair price for their products."

Third. the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in conjunction with the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) have been careless, if not negligent, in both ignoring the threat of BSE and in establishing a process whereby it can be readily detected before it moves into the food supply.

For example, it was in January, 2002 that the General Accounting Office --- Congress' investigative arm --- slammed the FDA for failing to adequately enforce feed ban regulations, a key piece of the nation's protection against the disease.

On the day after the Washington mad cow news became public , the FDA tried to reassure the public by saying it has "vigorously enforced" a 1997 law that bans the use of meat and bone meal from dead ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) in feed for live ruminants. The agency said more than 99% of feed operators are now complying with the law.

The GAO, however, said the agency had failed to issue warning letters to violators and inspection records were incomplete, inconsistent, inaccurate and untimely. The FDA's records, investigators said, were "so severely flawed" that they shouldn't be used to assess compliance. "FDA has not placed a priority on oversight of the feed ban," the report concluded.

Likewise, Amy Merrick reported in the Wall Street Journal that when the first news of the Sunny Dene cow was heard by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association it set in motion "the most rehearsed plan in the history" of the NCBA.

Merrick quotes Steven Grover, the National Restaurant Association vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs, as pointing out "the discovery of the Washington state cow also triggered long-rehearsed plans at other organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and McDonald's Corp. and the Association which has been working since 1990 to prepare for this day."

Speaking to 144 reporters and other participants following the USDA's initial briefing , Terry Stokes, the NCBA's chief executive, and his colleagues "delivered messages they had written long ago: The U.S. beef supply is the safest in the world. Consumers shouldn't be afraid to eat meat because the infected material from the cow wouldn't enter the food supply. The discovery of this case actually shows that the government surveillance system works."

Yet, at the same time the San Francisco Chronicle's Sabin Russell and Nanette Asimov were reporting that "meat from a Washington state slaughterhouse that contained cuts from a lone cow that tested positive for mad cow disease was sold in as many as nine California counties, but current rules forbid the state or counties from telling consumers exactly where recalled meat was sold." All this was taking place while the USDA was insisting that the recall was precautionary and that the meat posed no health risk.

According to USDA spokesman Matthew Baun, it's up to consumers to check with their grocers, butchers or restaurants to find out if any of the recalled meat may have landed on their tables. "We are prohibited from releasing information that companies would consider proprietary,'' he explained. "If you are concerned whether you may have purchased the product, you can call your retail store. They would know . . . The only way to know for sure is to contact stores."

Meanwhile, it is ironic that this whole incident is currently taking place against the backdrop of the USDA and the meat industry's concerted effort to eliminate funding designed to implement the provisions of the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation which was passed by the Congress --- legislation specially designed to bring a higher level of safety to the increasing amount of meat that is being imported into the U.S.

As St. Francis, Kansas cattleman Mike Callicrate told the Village Voice's James Ridgeway, "Adequate inspection on the border has been lacking for years especially on the topic of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service."

In that regard the story of USDA's Bill Lehman remains instructive.

Lehman, was a retired USDA meat inspector and from 1987 to 1996 he worked as a border meat inspector in the Sweetgrass, Montana station, the busiest port of entry for beef from Canada. Tireless in his efforts for more strict meat inspection regulation Lehman, who believed it was his duty to do whatever he could to ensure the safety of food being imported for American consumers, was outspoken in criticizing this countryís inspection standards.

Branded as a troublemaker, a loose cannon and a protectionist by many of his own USDA colleagues, others saw him as a hero, patriot and whistle blower; he much preferred to be thought of as a "concerned citizen."

By his own estimate he had himself rejected "up to 2.3 million pounds of contaminated or mislabeled imports annually. The reasons for rejection included pus-filled abscesses, sticky layers of bacteria leaving a stench, obvious fecal contamination, stains, metal shavings, blood, bruises, hair, hide, chemical residues, salmonella, added substances and advance disease symptoms."

Lehman was particularly highly critical of inspection procedures resulting from the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement which was approved in 1989. "Suddenly, Canadian meat imports became almost exempt from inspections," he recalled.

Shortly after the childrenís deaths and sickness from e-coli tainted hamburger in the Pacific Northwest Lehman testified before a Congressional Committee and detailed a typical inspection under the infamous "rear-door rule." "I merely walk to the back of the truck. Thatís all Iím allowed to do. Whether thereís boxed meat or carcasses in the truck, I canít touch the boxes. I canít open the boxes. I canít use a flashlight. I canít walk into the truck. I can only look at what is visible in the back of the trailer."

He also recounted during an interview while he was on the job that two trucks had just passed through the Sweetgrass facility and that he had inspected them both within 45 seconds.

"Iíve just inspected over 80,000 pounds of meat (boxed beef rounds and boxed boneless beef briskets) on two trucks. I wasnít running or hurrying either. One was bound for Sante Fe Springs, California, the other for San Jose, California. I just stamped on their paperwork `USDA Inspected and Passedí in 45 seconds."

Because of his outspokenness Lehman was ordered to transfer to another location, retire or be terminated from his job as a meat inspector. He subsequently retired after 30 years of service in the USDA, in early 1997, stating he was "just tired of the whole thing." Bill Lehman, 60, died of a severe heart condition March 2, 1998 at a Shelby, Montana care center.