Just as the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 changed the way Americans live, so did the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) case disclosed in Washington state on 12/23/03 change the way the cattle business lives.
And, while it may be a stretch to compare the human catastrophe of 9/11 to the events following the first BSE case in the U.S., it gives us some things to consider.
First, the U.S. had some warning salvos of terrorism — most notably, the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993. While many knew that the specter of terrorism lingered, and others warned of more calamities, we pretty much went on with business as usual.
Today Americans don't take a breath without some vestige of that horrific day breaking into our thoughts or bearing weight on our actions. We pay dearly every minute of every day for what happened in New York City, Washington, D.C., and that field in Pennsylvania.
December's BSE case also came with some warning shots — most notably, the Canadian BSE case in May. Some said it was only a matter of time for the U.S., yet we went about business pretty much as usual.
That's all changed now, like it or not. And, it doesn't matter who you think might be to blame. The cattle business has changed and, like all that comes with protecting ourselves against domestic terrorism, we'd better get used to it.
A letter last month from Swift & Co. to all live-animal suppliers is a perfect example of this new era. In the letter, Swift reacts to the new Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) cattle handling and processing guidelines that became mandatory Jan. 12.
FSIS amended federal meat inspection regulations to designate the brain, skull, eyes, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cord, most of the vertebral column and dorsal root ganglia of cattle 30 months of age and older as specified risk materials (SRMs). SRMs are declared by FSIS as inedible and prohibited for use in human food. The new rule even says T-Bone steaks must be from animals less than 30 months of age to be sold for human consumption.
Swift's response is that because of the “diminished value” of cattle more than 30 months of age, along with the costs of segregation and the devaluation of finished products, those animals will be “severely discounted.” This doesn't even address how packers will deal with downer cattle that show up at their doors.
Whether or not Swift's response is credible and necessary will be hotly debated — probably with calls for government oversight. Justifiably, there needs to be intense scrutiny of the packers and their procurement actions, especially as we go through the dust-settling phase of this post-BSE era.
But, as we begin installing the firewalls to protect the U.S. from BSE over time, let's not fool ourselves that there won't be costs involved all along the production chain. The costs of protecting all of us from BSE will be woven into the fabric of our business. You won't be able to escape it, nor will you like it.
But, who knows when the next innocent looking dairy or beef cow walking down the sorting alley might be the next bovine terrorist that brings the beef industry to its knees.