The Hallmark/Westland story continues to garner headlines on a whole range of issues.

  • The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) announced its intention to sue USDA over the agency's enforcement of the downer-cow issue.
  • Congress grilled HSUS representatives over its decision not to inform USDA of their evidence of mishandling, instead allowing it to continue for some time.
  • HSUS also strongly hinted that additional videos from other undercover activities might be forthcoming.

There were also other economic issues emerging surrounding the recall. For one, Hallmark/Westland isn't expected to reopen for business, but the firm provided product to lots of different companies, some of which appear to have been used in other products. Thus, the speculation has increased that the recall might extend to a far greater line of products than initially expected.
The industry's responses to this crisis have been diverse. Everyone appreciates that animal abuse should never happen and action must be taken to ensure it. Certainly, we know the type of abuse documented by HSUS is so rare as to seem almost nonexistent, but it also has highlighted how important animal welfare is to this industry and how carefully we must maintain and protect consumer confidence in the beef supply chain.

Not surprisingly, I received a lot of mail this week from cattlemen angry about the situation. They feel their industry and livelihood is being hurt by entities over which they have no control or influence.

Some writers expressed resentment against the dairy sector, pointing out that, whether it be drug-residue issues, BSE or downer cows, a disproportionate number of the problems have involved dairy cattle.

There was also a lot of anger toward the packing industry. Whether it be bone fragments in Pacific Rim shipments, bacterial contaminations, or this latest animal-abuse incident, we see our industry taking hits with little or no way to prevent it. The frustration is understandable.

The industry -- via the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), the checkoff and our Beef Quality Assurance efforts and other programs -- has moved aggressively over the years to improve product safety and handling. Still, NCBA has been criticized, not for its response or positions, but its perceived inability to influence USDA to adopt a more sensible approach than what's been promulgated.

While some of these concerns aren't without merit, the challenge for the industry is how to proactively address them. The real danger is in once again allowing ourselves to blame other segments and organizations for the failures and, in the process, convince ourselves that we aren't a vital part of the solution.

Sit down with a person from San Francisco or New York on a cross-country plane flight and start talking about animal welfare. You'll discover that many of the things we see as acceptable and proper, aren't viewed that way by most of the people who buy our product.

It's tempting to blame the media response, USDA's response, NCBA's inability to influence the outcome, the dairy industry, or the packing segment for the problem.

I know the level of stewardship cattlemen take of the land and their animals. Last winter, I watched my neighbors devote 20 hours daily in fighting Mother Nature to take care of their animals in one of the most severe winters on record.

Still, I'd like to ask you if you have personally witnessed something that -- if videotaped and not presented in proper perspective -- would be considered by the average consumer to be cruel or inhumane treatment? If someone secretly videotaped you, could they cherry-pick a few minutes out of the thousands of hours of footage to paint a negative picture of your stewardship?

If you understand that an electrical prod, or even the poke of a sorting stick, appears to be unacceptable to the average consumer, then most producers know those questions are meant to be largely rhetorical in nature.

But we have to accept that the media will continue to sensationalize any breakdown in the food-supply chain. They're not interested in the fact our food supply is the safest, most abundant and cost effective in the world; they make their living by finding or creating crisis.

We must understand that USDA is a government bureaucracy, and it's engaged in a never-ending battle to increase its power, influence and share of taxpayer dollars. That means it won't always act in the best interest of consumers nor industry, but will tailor its response to the political climate of the day.

I understand that frustration over BSE, country-of-origin labeling, mandatory price reporting and the like has driven criticism of USDA into an industry staple. But keep in mind that USDA is criticized by consumer groups in a far more brutal and unwavering way, for not being tougher on ag.

Our industry must accept the fact that the animal-welfare issue has been elevated to a level equal to environmental issues and food safety. We not only must effectively tell our story but prevent anything that can be construed as a failure. That means embracing both sides of the coin with equal vigilance.

What happened at Hallmark should never have happened. It's inexcusable. Those cows should never have left the dairy in that condition. But all of us have the responsibility to ensure sure it's not repeated.