Make a List
Barbara Young

Defining moments come at unpredictable times, like the rush of unsuspecting gusts of wind on a cloudless day. Although April is the month for federal and state tax returns, at the moment my mind is on other matters. Cogitating about a request from on high – in this case the president of my publishing house – brought about the theme for this month’s discussion. At issue is a call for all editors to come up with a list, complete with explanations, identifying the three critical issues the industries they cover are confronting in 2007.
My list included food safety, environmental/energy concerns and employee matters. I recognize that these are perennial issues that will go on and on. Food safety has been the meat-industry production theme of promise dating back to the Meat Inspection Act of 1890 — mandating the post-mortem inspection of meat for export only — and later solidified by the 1906 Meat Inspection — regulating the inspection of all meat for interstate and foreign commerce throughout every stage of processing. If profits are the goal, food safety is the means to that end — never more so than in these turbulent times.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has practically shut down international business transactions for the beef industry, beginning when the first U.S. cow tested positive for the disease in 2003. BSE, a brain-wasting illness, is said to infect cattle that eat meat containing spinal or brain tissues of animals infected with the disease. U.S. politicians, beginning at the White House, have been unable to persuade key export nations — especially Japan and Korea, among other Asian nations — to back off from their hard line and open their borders to American beef at more normal levels. Let us not forget the deadly blows E. coli O157: H7 delivered to the beef industry. Moreover, experts say that particular pathogen continues as a deadly threat.
Avian influenza also has a stranglehold on the poultry industry, which once enjoyed near free access to markets abroad. Inspection reform also fits in here as USDA is revising its system of plant inspections to offset budget cuts and other operating concerns. The latest is risked-based inspection, which means inspectors will focus their attention on problem companies while leaving the problem-free operations to their own devices.
Environmental and energy concerns are making their way up the list as processors engage in business ventures designed to use fats and oils to help generate fuel to offset America’s dependence on Middle East oil, while also doing their part concerning the new greening-of-America trend. Using corn for ethanol has become a bone of contention, however, as that initiative does not bode well for the meat industry and consumers, given that prices will rise for both in the absence of plentiful corn for animal feed and people food.
Labor problems have heated up in the wake of immigration reform noise from federal legislators. The industry has endured ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents) storm troopers in their plants, among other business disruptions that prompted line shutdowns, less production and the loss of manpower.
I have made my list and checked it over. I hit the send key and, almost simultaneously it seems, I was struck with an idea. Why not ask you to make a list like mine.
When it comes to understanding the business of developing and selling food, I am on the outside looking in. I am fine with my list as outlined above, however, but we all would be better served by your input.
In that regard, please allow me to peek into your minds since you are on the inside looking out. This is your assignment: send me [ ] your list of hot-button issues confronting the meat, poultry and prepared food industry — you don’t have to stick to three. I will tabulate the responses and report back to you in the magazine and on