One of the more challenging jobs in the beef industry is issues management. Those involved must not only respond to issues that suddenly arise, but construct strategies to deal with topics that potentially could threaten the industry’s well-being, and decide how proactive to be about them.
The latter is what the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) faced over the use of the feed supplement Zilmax®. NCBA staff and elected leaders knew of concerns about Zilmax’s possible effect on cattle well-being and on beef quality for a long time. NCBA’s dilemma was what to do in the face of 30 years of research by manufacturer Merck Animal Health, which said Zilmax was perfectly safe if used as directed. Its “correct” use will now be one of the most interesting areas that researchers will examine.
NCBA and the American Meat Institute (AMI) have directed most of the issues (and crisis) management for the industry the past 20 years. The two biggest issues over that period were E. coli 0157:H7 in beef and BSE.
E. coli 0157:H7 sparked profound changes at the processing level, and was the single most responsible factor for consolidation in the packing industry. The industry’s main role was to accept new regulations (such as a 1996 declaration that E. coli was an adulterant in beef), and to tell Americans that beef was even safer than before. But the pathogen still cost the industry $1.6 billion in lost demand in the decade after 1993.
- That decade had just ended when the U.S. discovered its first BSE case. Another 10 years have now passed since the “cow that stole Christmas” in 2003. BSE wrought much more economic damage on the industry than E. coli, and its effects still linger in the form of restricted overseas markets for U.S. beef.
While the industry was dealing with the fallout from E. coli and BSE, the longest-running issue of all kept unfolding. Talk about mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) began in the late 1990s, and the meat industry continues to battle over it today — both in the courts and at the World Trade Organization. In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder whether COOL’s outcome might have been different had NCBA adamantly opposed mandatory COOL early on, as AMI did.
By the time you read this, a federal district court judge will have ruled on whether to grant a preliminary injunction against COOL’s continued implementation. NCBA, AMI and seven other North American groups had asked for an injunction as part of their lawsuit against USDA over its final COOL rule, which took effect May 23.
Granting an injunction would mean USDA could not enforce its rule, and its previous final COOL rule would become the prevailing rule. This would mean retailers and packers could keep using the same labels and systems in use since 2009. They would not have to spend millions of dollars making more changes. This potential added cost was one of the key points in the groups’ request for an injunction.
Perhaps the most important aspect of an injunction is that it would suggest the judge believes the plaintiffs’ lawsuit has enough merit to win at trial. The lawsuit’s key legal argument is over the constitutionality of the COOL law. An injunction would suggest that the judge might eventually overturn the COOL law. Should the judge deny the plaintiffs an injunction, they might be forced to challenge the COOL statute more directly.
Given all this, industry leaders are no doubt relieved that Zilmax is off the market. But they must still be vigilant should social media users decide to attack beta-agonist use in beef production. They should remember what happened to lean finely textured beef because the industry failed to act well before ABC’s media blitz.
Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com). See his weekly cattle market roundup each Friday afternoon at beefmagazine.com.
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