Mike John, a Missouri cattleman and current president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), recently used a line made famous by Ronald Reagan -- "Trust, but verify." He was responding to criticism NCBA received for pushing hard for sanctions against Japan if it fails to reopen its border, and supporting legislation to halt the import of Japanese beef into the U.S.

The hard line has been criticized, coming as it did when Japan, Korea and even China appear on the verge of resuming trade.

John concedes things are looking up, and makes an eloquent case on the importance of the Asian markets to the U.S. beef industry. He also rightfully stresses the time to take off the pressure until U.S. beef is back in Japan.

"We just can't afford to take our eye off the ball, even if resumption of trade appears to be right around the corner," he says, stressing that there's a lot of work left to do if our terms of trade are going to be fair and reliable.

I mention John's comments because they bring up a critical point many have forgotten as we look at this fiasco which has been BSE.

Yes, the customer is always right. Yes, once market access is re-established, buyers and sellers will interact to create and find the most value, and that's the way it should be. However, trade must be fair, which means the ground rules are understood, implemented and enforced. It means rules based on science, and a system in place to prevent non-tariff trade barriers.

As John pointed out, the U.S. has made dramatic concessions in order to satisfy our trading parners, but "these concessions must fall within reasonable limits. Agreeing to unscientific, unrealistic guidelines is simply a recipe for failure, and will almost certainly result in additional stoppages of trade."

As John said, NCBA isn't asking any nation to compromise the safety of its citizens, or look the other way on any science-based food safety guideline. "But we must demand they act in good faith and accept terms of trade that are based on sound, internationally established science. We've grown tired of all this political pandering, thinly disguised as food safety concerns. It's time get our beef en route to the Far East -- no more delays, no more excuses," he adds.

If we can't rely on these markets in terms of access, or if the terms are such that their potential will forever be downgraded, then we must make a stand. U.S. cattle producers are anxious to compete, and we need the markets -- something our trading partners understand and are using to their advantage.

There's no way to step back from the global beef trade -- too many dollars are at stake. Yet everyone understands there's no such thing as free trade; what we're looking for is fair and reliable trade. We actually harm our prospects by confusing negotiations between governments that are establishing guidelines with the goals of serving their own self-interests, with being responsive to consumer desires and demands.

The guidelines are something that occur between two governments. Once those are established, then the industry must respond to consumer demands within the context of those rules. Those who try to blur those distinctions do so to the industry's detriment.
-- Troy Marshall