This week’s BSE news from Florida was a non-event. The fact it became a non-event means consumers weren’t unduly frightened about eating beef, nor were markets see-sawed by volatility from uncertainty.
In fact, more industry harm was done by a sensational and irresponsible article by Consumer Reports – “What’s Really In Your Meat?” – published this week that purports to analyze the amounts of banned or severely restricted drugs that may end up on your dinner plate in the form of beef.
The common silver lining of these two events is they underscored the value of your beef checkoff, and the work it does on your behalf to minimize the damage from unexpected crises. To fully appreciate that this week’s news was a blip rather than an eruption, one must remember the events of 15 years ago.
The beef checkoff program is much more than the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner!” campaign. On Dec. 23, 2003, Ag Secretary Ann Veneman announced in a hastily called news conference the nation’s first case of bovine spongiform encephalapathy (BSE) – also referred to as mad cow disease – had been discovered near Yakima, Wash. Overnight, many nations halted beef imports from the U.S., and executives at beef and dairy trade associations cancelled any last-minute Christmas shopping to field nonstop calls from media.
Less widely known is the fact USDA alerted industry groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that the BSE announcement was forthcoming. NCBA, a contractor to the beef checkoff, was not caught flat-footed. In fact, they had an emergency plan in place for nearly 10 years in the event of such a crisis.
Each year an audit of checkoff-funded work is completed by an independent third party. The beef checkoff’s public relations team earned high marks for its handling of the BSE crisis in 2003 and 2004, with the auditor saying, “the PR program helped pave the way for neutral and/or positive coverage of beef” during the crisis.
Further, the auditor said, “the PR team’s BSE preparation work and skilled media management during the first reported BSE case won numerous PR industry awards for excellence in 2005 and, more importantly, worked to maintain media and consumers’ assurance in beef safety when the second BSE case was discovered.”
Those PR victories help alleviate consumer concerns over BSE at home, but the loss of beef’s export markets due to BSE hysteria abroad cost American cattlemen billions of dollars in lost sales. The 2003 beef export value was $3 billion, which dropped to $1.1 billion in 2004 due to BSE. Over time, U.S. exports recovered and made inroads into new markets. In 2017 the value of U.S. beef exports was $7.3 billion, and this year export values were up 21% through June, totaling $4 billion, on pace to eclipse $8 billion for the year. The beef checkoff’s role in crisis management and subsequent promotion of U.S. beef to our trading partners has played a huge role in that success.
U.S. Beef is World-Renowned for Quality and Safety
Successfully communicating factual information about BSE and the firewalls in place to protect the food supply has now made BSE announcements ho-hum events.
Similarly, when activists or organizations target beef with skewed or dishonest claims, the beef checkoff is prepared to answer. This week, when Consumer Reports published its article that based findings on unconfirmed residue screening tests of meats, the checkoff issued a statement warning consumers that the information was false and misleading.
A statement attributed to John Robinson, vice president of membership and communications at NCBA, said, “Knowingly printing inaccurate and misleading articles, which rely on information that is known to be false, misleads consumers about the competency of the current food safety programs in place at USDA. Those programs have long been the global gold standard for food safety and today they continue to provide overlapping safeguards to ensure consumers are receiving wholesome and safe products.”
Even USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service felt compelled to correct Consumer Reports’ article, calling it “sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics.”
Robinson’s statement continued: “The author of ‘What’s Really in Your Meat?’ admits that the article’s findings are uncertain and any potential risks are unknown. The reality is that America’s beef producers take food safety seriously, as do the government agencies that regulate and monitor production in the United States. To suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible.”
Thanks to cattlemen-funded checkoff programs, this week’s potential market disruptors were non-events.