With the cow-calf segment looking to build on what promises to be the longest extended period of profits in its history, the feeding and packing segments experiencing substantial profits, and consumer demand for beef continuing to grow, the atmosphere of the meeting was very upbeat.
Admittedly, the divisions that have split the industry, and the infighting that has weakened the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) over the last few years, remain the foremost thought in everyone's mind. But, despite the difficulties and near desperation in that regard, there was also a sense of celebration related to the major victories.
The response to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) case in Canada and the industry's ability to weather it unscathed remains one of the great industry success stories. It demonstrates a fundamental shift in the industry -- the ability to be proactive rather than reactive to industry issues.
There was also a sense of celebration over the progress made in a wide array of areas including: private property rights, endangered species, food safety, health and nutrition, taxes, drought relief, etc.
In summary, the mood of conference attendees was a mixture of two factors. First, a vindication in the concepts that led to the 1995 merger that envisioned a unified industry message on key issues and industry collaboration in improving producer profitability. The second was a realization that the same merger also created divisions and problems, both real and perceived, that not only threaten the future of a strong and unified national organization but, ultimately, NCBA's ability to fulfill this role.
- As a result, the convention's primary topic revolved around changing the way NCBA policy is formed. In what can only be characterized as very aggressive, NCBA advanced proposed changes to its bylaws that are designed to enhance the ability of NCBA to be more responsive to cow-calf producers, the organization's backbone, while continuing to foster collaboration between industry segments.
To some people's surprise, the changes received overwhelmingly broad support (more than 90% voted in favor). The new policy is designed to be more inclusive and to give the overall membership more say in the policy process as all policy must now come up through the committee structures. This essentially returns this aspect of policy formation back to as it was before the merger.
Now, the membership at convention can enact any policy by a simple majority vote. The council meetings have been replaced by industry issue forums to allow for a free exchange of ideas between members. (As a trial run, forums were held on topics like country-of-origin labeling, BSE, the checkoff, the carcass merit research project and food safety.)
In addition, no policy will officially be ratified as NCBA policy until the entire membership votes on it. All members will be mailed a ballot on proposed policy changes. Only after the membership voting criteria is met will NCBA policy be ratified.
The voting criteria states that a minimum of 20% of NCBA members must vote. To avoid any one or two regions from dominating, a minimum of 20% of members in at least four of the seven regions must return their ballots. Then, policy will be accepted or rejected by the membership by a simple majority vote.
On a related note, membership fees were increased for the feeders and larger producers, and reduced for smaller producers who join through the state marketing category. Thus, a producer who owns 50 or fewer cows can join NCBA for $50. The changes must be approved by the membership at convention to go into effect, but are expected to pass overwhelmingly.
- Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) remains the most divisive issue in the industry. After much discussion, the membership passed a directive that NCBA should continue to seek the implementation of a workable COOL program that would benefit producers.
The directive also provided language that supports the continuation of a voluntary program until a workable program can be designed. It also asks USDA to immediately begin implementation of voluntary program labeling for cattle born, raised and processed in the U.S. for the export, food service and retail segments of the beef business.
- While the Canadian BSE situation remains a top industry concern, the majority of the discussion was more knowledge based than policy focused. It appears NCBA will continue to deal with the BSE situation based on a three-pronged approach focused on ensuring the public's health and the health of the U.S. beef herd, and mitigating the negative impact on U.S. producers.
There was also general agreement that NCBA continue to insist that all decisions be based on science and a sound assesment of risks based on facts.
There was the realization that the U.S. response is critical, not only as it relates to the current situation but also in establishing how such issues will be handled in the future. It's vitally important that these decisions be based on science and not perception or politics. Another realization, left unexpressed, is that the main reason the Canadian beef industry is facing the loss of its export markets, and the U.S. is not, isn't superior science or safeguards. It's simple luck.
- Like BSE, the mandatory beef checkoff was a major topic but little came forward in terms of policy change. NCBA remains committed to exhausting all legal options in its attempts to preserve the checkoff, and believes it will ultimately prevail in the U.S. Supreme Court.