Dittmer’s Take: Bullard’s data breach

A 2013 nationwide online survey of U.S. consumers by Kansas State University found that freshness and safety were the most important values consumers placed on buying milk, ground beef, beef steak and chicken breast.

Bill Bullard is evidently often busy studying data, usually looking for reasons why things aren’t different than they are and who Ranchers-Cattlemen’s Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) can blame for the ills of the industry. R-CALF has lately been busy suing the major packers and getting help from the trial lawyers to sue the checkoff and USDA.

Bullard now has a new target, according to a recent news release. He is upset at the importers whom he claims “control” the imported cattle and beef, in sufficient numbers that they can buffalo Congress into doing their bidding.

Now about that word “control.” It is one of Bullard’s favorite words. He usually uses it in the context of exaggerating the influence some person or organization has on the cattle or beef markets or politics or something else. But I rarely see him interested in the influence that consumer demand or consumer buying habits might have on the beef industry. Quite the contrary, as he gets around to in this instance, he is more interested in scaring the American consumer away from buying beef from American meat cases.

He also seems to envision unsavory people in foreign countries loading up ships with beef and cattle and shipping them to unsuspecting chumps in the U.S., who are dumb enough to let the ships unload and are then left trying to figure out what to do with awful products. Or Mexicans or Canadians loading up trucks and looking for a place over the U.S. border to dump their loads.

What is the real situation? Someone in the U.S. with a need for beef or cattle took the time and trouble to locate what they wanted and bought and paid for it. Whether a feedyard or packer or ground beef purveyor, they had a need and they bought it and brought it to the U.S., under inspection and clearances.

Bullard has calculated how many head the roughly 3 billion pounds of beef imported each year account for, the feeder cattle imported from Mexico and Canada, and the live cattle from Canada, and targets the 6.9 million head that totals. He contends that those “importers” that exercise “dominant control” through those 6.9 million head have “extraordinary influence in both Congress and the administration, enabling them to drown out the voices of United States cattle farmers and ranchers.”

By the way, the total beef imported at 3 billion lbs. amounts to 11 percent of the U.S. total of 27 billion lbs. And most of that is lean beef for making ground beef and processed meat. The total that Bullard is so concerned about from Mexico and Canada is 778 million lbs., about a fourth of total imports and 3 percent of total U.S. beef pounds.

Never mind that those importers are not a monolithic evil empire but are U.S. packers, feeders, purveyors and grinders competing with each other for inputs they need to satisfy American consumers. Yes, there are facilitators from other countries involved who help our importers find the cattle or beef products they need. But it is companies operating in America who buy the products, not some unseen conspirators force-feeding cattle and beef down our throats. Most of the live cattle imported, some 80 percent, are feeder cattle bought by American feedyards (data from Nevil Speer).

R-CALF has attacked beef or cattle coming in from other countries for years, alleging that anything bad in the cattle or beef markets occurs because of the 8 or 9 percent of the total fed slaughter that packers procure in Canada. Those cattle do not overwhelm our market and they help border packers stay afloat. That way those packers can be there to buy and harvest fed cattle from American cattle feeders in areas that have too few U.S.-only cattle to support a plant. Those feedyards also buy feeder cattle from American farmers and ranchers in those areas.

It is also noteworthy that the number of feeder cattle brought in from Canada continues to drop, some 70 percent in the last decade, partially because of legal, political and public relations campaigns from R-CALF (data from Nevil Speer). Its efforts to keep the Canadian border closed over unfounded bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) fears, and the operational and cost factors involved with R-CALF’s ill-fated mandatory country-of-origin labeling (mCOOL) efforts, triggered Canadian government help to their beef industry, boosted the packer and feedlot demand for cattle in Canada and fewer feeder cattle now flow from Canada to the U.S. In fact, more American feeder cattle are going north to be fed, meaning U.S. feedlots and packers do not have those cattle from either source to keep occupancy up and harvest lines busy.

R-CALF never explains the fact that booming ground beef demand in the U.S. over the last couple decades has far outstripped the supply of cull beef and dairy cows available to make ground beef. We harvest roughly half as many cows as in the ’70s, while producing more high quality fed beef. Without the cull cows or lean beef from Canada or the safety inspected and very lean beef imported from countries like Australia or New Zealand, mixed with the 50/50 trim from our Choice carcasses, American consumers would be eating a lot fewer, much more expensive beef burgers. Yet, some of R-CALF’s members are happy to denigrate fast food chains selling millions of beef burgers as places Americans should avoid.

Bullard attacks the representatives of foreign countries that sell beef to the U.S. that are on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, implying that they exert undue influence in Congress and that’s why mCOOL has not been restored. The importers have a very small representation on the board because imports are assessed checkoff fees. And, of course, it is the opposition from the majority of U.S. farm and ranch groups that categorically oppose re-instituting mCOOL, added to the illegality of mCOOL, that have prevented the re-institution of the law. It is not the “overwhelming influence” or “undue lobbying influence” of beef and cattle “importers” in Washington, D.C.

It is also not a help to the industry that R-CALF continually downgrades the quality and safety of beef sold in America, trying to convince consumers that it is not safe to buy beef from our meat cases or restaurants. Bullard calls it “cheaper-sourced” and refers to “foreign sources” without explaining that it meets the same USDA or equivalent inspection, meets the quality specifications of American buyers or it would not be purchased. It fills needs the U.S. cattle industry cannot meet or it wouldn’t be here.

Bullard’s conjuring of a malevolent, “dominant” importer influence is just another bogeyman created to try to blame the failure of mCOOL, R-CALF’s border closure efforts, their opposition to free trade and, at best, indifference to exports, as attributable to unnamed, shadowy foreign influences. — Steve Dittmer, WLJ columnist

(Steve Dittmer is the author of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation newsletter.)

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