“When you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When you have neither, holler.”
That quote is from Al Gore, the former vice president and an environmentalist of some notoriety. His modification of the famous advice for lawyers – to argue the facts or the law, depending on which is in your favor – is relevant for the beef industry this spring as we seek to address new concerns over the safety and wholesomeness of our products.
Unfortunately, there is little advice available when you have the law in your favor, the facts in your favor, and hollering just doesn’t work.
Such is the case with lean fine-textured beef (LFTB), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and many other issues surrounding our food production and distribution system. American farmers and ranchers are proud to tell consumers, “We have the safest food supply in the world.” The facts and the law suggest that is true, but hollering it from the rooftops in every city in America hasn’t seemed to stem the flow of venomous vitriol from both amateur bloggers and professional news organizations.
As we now know, LFTB was – and is – a way to utilize more of every cow while minimizing the risk of contamination by harmful bacteria. As long as it was called LFTB our customers didn’t notice. Once the media called it pink slime damage control became like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. And it didn’t seem to matter – either to the media or to consumers – that there were no sicknesses or illnesses attributed to pink slime.
The scenario surrounding BSE is similar. Both industry and government agencies have worked diligently and decisively to implement action plans to protect the American food supply and consumer health. But, despite the fact that the U.S. has never had an incident of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) due to American beef, “mad cow disease” remains an issue that can be exploited by the media to scare consumers.
Both the LFTB incident and the new BSE-infected cow in California cost hundreds of man-hours by government officials and industry experts who assured the public that their safety was never in danger. Those assurances certainly helped, and beef demand is showing little effect from the two incidents. But, some damage to our industry’s image was done, whether or not we can accurately measure it.
The beef industry’s most pressing need going forward is to look for ways to polish our image by removing other potential toe-stubbers. The most obvious of those is chicken litter and its use as cattle feed. There are already national media commentators questioning the safety of the practice and calling for its removal.