July 1, 2005
That the meat industry is under siege is indisputable. Lately, the beef industry especially is taking hit after hit mainly due to discoveries of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). The end is not in sight despite the recent repeal of a Montana court’s ban on live cattle exports from Canada.
At issue is a U.S. appeal court’s order lifting a two-year ban on Canadian cattle set in motion by a Montana court injunction, which essentially crippled U.S. beef processing initiatives – to say nothing of the impact on Canadian ranchers, who lost an entrenched customer base.
The latest decision does not give Canadian ranchers unrestricted access to American markets, however, as the only cattle that qualify under the order must be younger than 30 months and not pregnant. Older cattle do not qualify due to unresolved issues related to BSE detection through testing.
How did this happen?
If this were fiction, the scenario would be something like this. The judge in one court is sympathetic to particular petitioners. Although the judge is sworn to uphold the law without bias, that does not preclude his humanity. He comes from a long line of cattle ranchers, and has also listened to the gripes of his friends complaining about the unfairness in competing with ranchers from other countries. It is bad enough that they must compete with larger, more efficient, and highly capitalized beef producers in their own country. They should not also face competitive threats from abroad. Here comes the judge, who does nothing improper, but decides in favor of the petitioners arguing that American consumers’ lives may be at risk if they eat beef processed from foreign cattle tainted by BSE. They have right on their side. Cattle diagnosed with BSE have turned up in Canada and America. In fact, there have been cases in other pockets of the world, since the disease first turned up in England more than a decade ago.
The petitioners are jubilant, and why not. This was a win for the little guys. The judge listened to their side and gave it credence. He apparently did not need to hear the other side of the argument.
The judge knows a higher court may overturn his ruling, but he also knows his decision gives the petitioners quite a bit of time. After all nothing moves through the courts quickly. Moreover, a single repeal does not signal the end of the cycle through the courts. There is always the Supreme Court, whose black-robed justices may stay the initial decision handed down in Montana.
This is real life, not fiction. The real issues concern matters of free trade and the impact on beef-industry businesses and American consumers. In this global economy, protectionism simply won’t work, and though the government needs to tighten up safeguards against BSE, firewalls are in place. Consumers understand there may be more BSE cases. In their deliberations, the courts must consider the impact of their decisions on everybody, not one segment of the population.