BSE Gridlock
By Barbara Young
I don't mind that you think slowly but I do mind that you are publishing faster than you think. – Wolfgang Pauli, physicist, Nobel laureate (1900-1958)
Living in an age dominated by instant message — IM — technology may be responsible for skewing rational thought. Although empirical wisdom refutes this notion since mankind — at least of the American ilk — always seems to be in a hurry to get nowhere fast. Think of the driver in that low-slung sports car weaving in and out of traffic and roaring ahead of you in your oh-so-practical vehicle, only to meet you at the traffic light idling to the tune of impatience.
That seems to be the state of the beef industry these days— idling to the tune of impatience. Hammering somebody about why this, that, or the other happened, precludes finding solutions. Obfuscation may work in a court of law when winning at all cost is at issue, but it simply casts a giant shadow over proceedings in the court of business affairs.
This time, the spotlight is on USDA and its decision-making power currently at the epicenter of the raging controversy threatening the future of the American beef industry.
At issue is the department’s protocols concerning its BSE-detection testing procedures and decisions — specifically, the determination to retest animal tissue that initially tested negative for BSE. When a different test yielded a new outcome, the department — acknowledging the conflicting test results — shipped the sample to England for further analysis.
“We have consulted with our top scientists at USDA and with internationally recognized experts to determine our best course in this unique case,” explains Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. “I believe in this situation we have an obligation to be thorough.”
This seems a reasonable course of action.
The discrepancy grew out of a discovery by USDA’s Office of the Inspector General. While reviewing records compiled during the BSE Surveillance Program Phase II audit, an auditor noted an unusual pattern of conflicting test results on one sample and called for additional testing of that sample.
This news sent the beef industry in certain quarters into a tailspin, yet again. No question, the beef industry’s economic health is in deep decline triggered by a host of actions and reactions since the onslaught of BSE. But is a decision to retest an animal sample really shaking up the cattle market? Some would have us believe this is the case. Cattle prices reportedly dropped last year in November on the heels of USDA’s “inconclusive” test results.
Certainly the industry must gird itself to withstand financial losses to weather the vicissitudes of the market, that is just good business sense. Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better, something British theologian Richard Hooker understood in the 16th century, when life was tremendously less complex. Many factors dictate the future direction of the beef industry. Tackling counteracting trends is not always clear-cut, however. It is at these times that the regulated and regulators must not be at cross-purposes. Yes, the beef industry is in a hurry to get back on its feet, and not just idling to the tune of impatience. It is crying for help by questioning policies and decisions. Given the circumstances dictated by market forces, questions and suspicions are the only weapons available. Is USDA listening?