When it comes to consumer perceptions, there is no doubt that the goal is to avoid a problem in the first place. Fixing consumer perceptions is a difficult task even when the perceptions are not founded on facts. We are just now getting export levels back to pre-BSE levels, but even that pronouncement is a little misleading; we still have a lot of work to do in certain markets to get the same market share or tonnage numbers that we lost. A lot of analysts put the economic cost of BSE in the billions after it happened. I doubt many of them counted on us still paying for it today.
The lean finely textured beef (LFTB) controversy from last spring put the product in such a negative light that USDA felt obligated to give schools the choice to use the product or not. School districts, while already cash-strapped, certainly would have preferred to use the more cost-effective product, but public perception made it impossible for them to do so. The result? Less beef in school lunch programs, higher costs, and on and on.
In the aftermath, the only states that kept using LFTB were the cattle states of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota that surrounded Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), principal manufacturer of LFTB, where public perception was not so thoroughly changed by the mass media’s coverage. Sadly, it made headlines when four additional states announced that they would begin buying the product. Currently only one of the original four plants operated by BPI is in production. BPI lost 80% of its business in the first month following the media hysteria that was created.
The media has moved on, but the jobs lost, the revenue taken from our industry, the negative impact on demand, the deleterious effect on kids nutrition, and the increased cost of school lunch programs remain and are just considered collateral damage for a story that was able to fill a couple of minutes of air time for several weeks. The damage can be inflicted in very little time, but it takes decades to repair. And in the cases of BSE and LFTB, there is real doubt whether or not the damage will ever be fully repaired. We have simply learned to compensate and move forward.
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