Politicians and cattlemen were bouncing around like those Russian squat dancers after a Montana judge stiff-armed USDA's planned March 7 opening of the Canadian border. The border, set to swing open to imports of Canadian cattle less than 30 months of age, was rebolted March 2 by Judge Richard Cebull's decision to prevent the "serious irreparable harm that will occur when Canadian cattle and meat enter the U.S. and commingle with the U.S. meat supply."
Beyond a bunch of hippies trying to burn the Stars and Stripes outside a Grange meeting, there's likely never been an issue as emotional as this border issue. The situation is reminiscent of one of those old Miller Lite commercials where two sides of a stadium face off with shouts of "Tastes Great" and "Less Filling."
Those in favor of keeping the border closed have pulled out all stops in portraying the campaign as a crusade to protect the American consumer. R-CALF even took out an ad in the March 15 issue of the Washington Post invoking the words "mad cow," and using words and phrases like "fatal disease" and "high-risk."
As Agribusiness Freedom Foundation (www.agribusinessfreedom.org) executive director Steve Dittmer points out, the ad was: " the latest effort to scare consumers about BSE -- bought, paid for and placed on purpose in a nationally circulated newspaper published in the city that sets national policy."
There's no doubt, however, that the real motive is protecting the robust U.S. cattle market that has roughly coincided with the May 2003 closure of the border to Canadian cattle. After all, if Canadian cattle are so dangerous, where's the conscience of R-CALF members who reportedly have invested in Canadian cattle since the Canadian BSE discoveries? How can these folks sleep at night as convinced as they are that Canadian cattle will kill consumers? Is it okay to kill Canadian consumers but not American consumers?
And, R-CALF's claim that U.S. consumers will turn away from all beef if Canadian product is allowed into the U.S. ignores the fact Canadian beef muscle products have been available in the U.S. since September 2003. If such a crisis of consumer confidence actually exists, it's one R-CALF (along with its anti-globalist, anti-beef cohorts) has whipped up with its two years of bleating about the issue.
Like it or not, this is a North American cattle industry and the Canadian and U.S. systems are largely the same, including their BSE prevention and surveillance strategies. Once R-CALF has helped "consumer" groups the likes of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, Carol Tucker Foreman's Consumer Federation Of America, and the Consumer Union dispense with Canada, what's to prevent these anti-meat groups from going after the domestic beef industry. After all, the seeds of consumer doubt on beef safety and USDA's watchdog role already have been well-planted and nurtured -- with R-CALF's help.
The Bible says: "The lion and the lamb shall lay down together." Woody Allen once reworked that to say: "The lion and the lamb will lay down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep." R-CALF not only has lain down with the lion but took a sleeping potion before nestling the industry's jugular into the lion's mouth.
What's more, R-CALF has set the stage for a real beef crisis in this country should a domestic case of BSE be discovered, which experts say is more likely than not. Having used hysteria reminiscent of what happened some 15 years ago when BSE was first discovered in Europe to whip up consumer and political support, what's their fallback position when a U.S. case is discovered? I doubt "just kidding" will suffice.
The long-accepted, almost sacrosanct, tenet of trade decisions is that they should be based on the best available science. In fact, in a mid January e-mail survey of BEEF magazine readers, 81% of respondents said that, as a general principle, the U.S. beef industry should always stand on the best available science in determining its positions on key industry issues.
Yet, of those same respondents, 68.9% said the National Cattlemen's Beef Association should insist U.S. beef trade be re-established with Japan and South Korea and expanded in Mexico before the U.S. border is reopened to Canadian cattle, even if it violates World Trade Organization rules. So much for science.
One can hardly blame folks for trying to lengthen the run of great prices they perceive as being the result of a closed border. Analysts say, however, that the prices aren't driven by supply but by the phenomenal domestic demand growth of the past few years. Thank the checkoff.
The reality is that the U.S. has set a dangerous precedent in departing from the "best science" principle. We've opened the door for trading partners to justify doing the same to us.