Dissent in the Herd
Barbara Young
Somebody from another world might question the efficacy of American democracy, given constant dissent within the ranks of it citizenry. Take the flap pitting the government and meat-industry trade associations against each other concerning international trade — a lucrative business with generous financial rewards, to be sure.
Before the Japanese rejected U.S. beef in 2003 in the wake of America’s first up-close-and-personal bout with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) detected in a single cow, sales to Japan reportedly exceeded $1.7 billion.  Total export value of U.S. beef and ruminant products amounted to $7.5 billion in 2003.
Japan was not the only country banning U.S. beef — 64 percent of the market shunned American beef.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently announced that a third of closed markets have reopened, with 41 percent remaining closed. Japan represents nearly half of the dollar value of the still-closed export markets. The encouraging news concerning Japan is that parties on both sides of the ocean are working on sticking points in the negotiating process.
Exporting is especially critical to the financial health of the U.S. cattle and beef business — calculated at 10 percent of America’s total production.
Global market access is the crux of the matter, with the United States, Canada, and Japan sharing the spotlight at the epicenter these days. BSE is the proverbial fly in the ointment — big time.
The closed Canadian border, preventing cattle from entering America, is at the heart of the current lightning rod debate triggered by the Animal and Plant health inspection Service (APHIS) rule, called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy; Minimal-Risk Regions and Importation of Commodities, and its raison d’etat.
The rule essentially clears the way for live cattle under 30 months of age to come to America — a measure designed to unlock the door that slammed shut after the initial citing of BSE in Canada, marking its first appearance in North America. Other features of the measure include classifying regions with effective BSE prevention and detection measures as minimal risk areas.
Support for USDA’s attempt to facilitate the return to commerce between the bordering nations not only sparked abundant controversy, but some opponents took their complaints to court, including the American Meat Institute (AMI) and the National Meat Association (NMA), both representing processors and manufacturing suppliers, and R-Calf USA, representing farmers and feedlot operators. USDA continues to adhere to non-existent science in developing BSE policies, R-Calf argues. AMI supports the rule in principle, but sees it falling short of relieving the situation since cattle older than 30 months are banned in the process. On the other hand NMA is crying foul, claiming U.S. cow slaughterers were enraged to find their needs left out of the rule. NMA also blasted R-Calf’s move to keep the Canadian border closed, calling it a “protectionist agenda.”
Of course the universe is unfolding as it should when the congressional contingency roars dissent on behalf of its constituents. Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee want to revisit the rule. There even is talk of forcing its demise.
These are heavy issues, to be sure. The only hope for resolution is open debate. Clearly, this is the most effective tool in a free society. Dissent is not fatal, but stifling debate can be. Whatever happens concerning USDA’s final rule, set for implementation in March, the resolution will be acceptable if it ends up as the greatest good for the greatest number — the hallmark of the pluralistic society in which we live.