Meat Matters

USDA’s Blurry Vision On Packers

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USDA has gotten into the map-making business, and the results are blurry, to say the least. USDA announced in late May that it had identified so-called gaps in the regional food systems regarding the availability of slaughter facilities to small meat and poultry producers.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) apparently spent the preceding months drawing up county-by-county maps of the continental U.S., and overlaying livestock and poultry numbers with the numbers of small meat and poultry processing plants in each county. USDA says this is the first-ever attempt to identify areas where small livestock and poultry producers are concentrated but may not have access to a nearby slaughter facility.

The study was part of USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, the agency’s effort to promote small farmers and local markets. The study shows there’s often a shortage of facilities needed to bring food to market, opines USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

That may be so, but the study doesn’t support that contention. FSIS’s maps are almost meaningless unless they also take into account the type of livestock in each county. For example, counties in south Texas and the Nebraska Sandhills have large cattle numbers with no slaughter plants. But these counties have nearly all cow-calf operations, and their cattle go to other counties or states to be fed and harvested. They don’t need a packing plant.

USDA needs to analyze the types of animals in each county, how those animals are currently marketed and why small plants have closed before drawing any conclusions about the need for plants. FSIS would also be well advised to refer to the cost of food safety measures and the 41 beef slaughter plants that have shut down since 1995 (see http://beefmagazine.com/beef-quality/wal-mart-raises-food-safety-bar-0601/ ).

Meanwhile, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) plan to revamp its governance structure has resurfaced long-simmering concerns about the beef checkoff. That’s regrettable, given the wide support for and value of the checkoff and its promotion and research programs. The only issue facing the checkoff should be how to raise it to $2/head.

The concerns harken back to the merger 14 years ago of the National Cattlemen’s Association with the National Live Stock & Meat Board. The concerns are mainly about the adequacy of the firewall between NCBA and its policy work, and the beef checkoff program and the federation of state beef councils. Six producer groups complained about NCBA’s proposed plan in March, and USDA Secretary Vilsack then warned the group in a sharply worded letter that its reorganization plan would jeopardize the checkoff.

Some producers believe NCBA uses some checkoff dollars for lobbying purposes. That’s not true, as far as I know, as the accounting firewall between policy and promotion dollars is pretty solid.

But another perception is more troublesome. NCBA critics say the checkoff structure favors NCBA in the allocation of checkoff dollars, and that NCBA “controls” the checkoff. That’s a perception NCBA hasn’t been able to shake since 1996, and perhaps has been too quick to dismiss.

Vilsack told NCBA its reorganization proposal would weaken the barrier between policy and checkoff-funded activities, and set a bad precedent for checkoff programs in general. In contrast to NCBA’s plan, there’s been a trend over the years by other checkoff programs to make a stronger firewall between policy and checkoff-funded activities, he told NCBA. NCBA would be wise to focus on this comment and, if necessary, rework its proposed governance plan.

Another way to assuage concerns would be to make bidding on checkoff-funded projects more open. Right now, if I want to bid on a project, I have to be affiliated with an industry group.

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com).

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Steve Kay

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com ) subscription newsletter, the number-one marketing and business newsletter for the meat and livestock...

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