The last several years have been extremely positive ones for the beef industry on many fronts — from tax laws to public lands to endangered species. In this time, the industry has also made much progress on environmental and health issues, both in public perception and legislatively. When the demand growth is added into the equation, it's not surprising that the industry has regained the swagger in its step.
Of course, these successes bring with them the risk of overconfidence or forgetting how well-organized and -funded the anti-beef activists are. I certainly prefer the risk of being overconfident to the mindset of the 1980s when the industry seemed to lose ground every day, but we can't forget about the forces allayed against us.
The U.S. has taken the fight against terrorism to the enemy and has been successful in preventing 9/11/01-style attacks. But the country is acutely aware that the risk still exists.
If nothing else, the activist response to the single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) announced Dec. 23, 2003, underscores the need for the industry to be prepared to carry the battle to the public. And, the beef industry did a wonderful job of holding consumer demand together in the wake of the BSE case found in Washington state.
But even what was, in some cases, sensational media coverage, seems mild compared to the systematic attacks by activists that have continued since the BSE issue passed as a lead story. The aim of these groups is to raise questions about the safety of beef and the measures taken to defend the U.S. against BSE.
Certainly, the fact that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals acquired and is using the domain name www.beef.com as a forum for beef bashing isn't surprising. But the efforts by groups such as Friends of the Earth, In Defense of Animals, Organic Consumers Association, Farm Aid and hundreds of others should serve as our wakeup call.
On nearly every issue this industry faces we are out-manned and outspent by the opposition, and yet we are surprised with the occasional defeat. We expect our checkoff dollars to not only prevent any demand erosion for beef but build it, even though the pork and poultry industries have business models that are far better than our own in encouraging the building of brand equity.
We expect our checkoff dollars and dues to provide for the opening of export markets when other countries' spending is far more commensurate to the size of the job. We also expect the dollars we contribute to provide funding for everything from E-coli O157:H7 research to developing DNA markers, all while developing and bringing new products to the market.
Amazingly, those expectations have largely been met. But to forget about the threat and daily efforts required to keep this industry competitive is a big mistake. The BSE episode has served us as a stark reminder of just how extensive is the opposition aligned against us, and the importance of the beef industry speaking with one voice to confront these issues.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of BSE is that the greatest risk comes from within the industry. While only a small minority tried to use BSE to advance their political agenda, it quickly became the industry's greatest threat.
As the industry rallied behind maintaining consumer demand, some industry quarters added to the furor by questioning our safeguards, the food safety system, the morality of our production practices, even the ethics of those who were out in front carrying our message of reassurance to the public.
Without a doubt, there have been legitimate questions raised; they should be raised. But there also was exhibited a lack of empathy and commitment, as well as a willingness to play politics with a message no one in the industry should contest. That message is that U.S. producers provide the highest quality, most wholesome and safest beef products in the world.
Troy Marshall is the editor of Seedstock Digest and a major contributor to BEEF magazine's weekly electronic newsletter — BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly. To sign up for a free subscription to be delivered every Friday afternoon to your home computer, go to www.beef-mag.com.