One of Americans' finest qualities is their optimism. To honor that, I want to express my optimism that people will continue eating beef in 2010, despite media and other attempts to convince people they shouldn't touch the stuff.
I am also confident that the companies under the media spotlight in 2009 will continue to thrive. That's because they are world leaders in food safety — not that you'd get a hint of that from the one-sided stories.
The media's obsession with the beef supply appears to have intensified in inverse proportion to improvements in its safety. My number-one wish for 2010 is for a major news outlet to run a story that explains the enormous challenge of bringing pathogen-free food to consumers. I'd also like the story to compare the risk of falling ill or dying from beef with the risks connected to the other activities we do every day.
To complete my wish list, I want to see a story that spells out how the U.S. food and agricultural industry provides Americans with one of the safest, most reliable food supplies in the world at a reasonable price. In fact, food in this country is too cheap. Americans spend less of their disposable income on food than do people in any other developed nation. They have come to expect high-quality, safe food at ever-cheaper prices relative to their other spending.
This has put enormous pressure on producers and growers, meat processors and food companies to be more efficient. I'm amazed how some people claim that the occasional discovery of pathogens in beef is because of the “big bad corporations” that head the meat industry. Do these same people believe Americans die in road accidents because of Toyota, GM and Ford's share of the auto market? Now there's a story the New York Times should run. Just give the beef industry a break in 2010.
I noted in my November 2009 column how the beef industry and U.S. agriculture is under siege and needs to fight back. One way to do that is for every sector of the industry to examine and be able to justify all of its practices, from dehorning young cattle to commingling beef product from multiple sources. Having done that, it needs to invite members of the public, consumer groups, the media and Congress to their operations. If anyone is uncomfortable about not showing any part of their operation to outsiders, then they need to reexamine how they perform that operation.
Virtually nothing should be off-limits. I don't expect packers to invite a group of sixth graders to see animals being slaughtered. But there are many other parts of a beef-processing plant that can be viewed. It's a pity that so few new beef plants have been built over the past two decades. It's even more unfortunate that none of them, as far as I know, incorporated special viewing areas for visitors.
You may recall that Smithfield Foods' beef group, which it sold to JBS in 2008, had plans to build a huge new beef-processing plant in Oklahoma. The plant's design included a viewing platform or tunnel running down the middle of the plant. The concept was to give visitors a unique view of how the plant operated without compromising human safety or phytosanitary standards.
Inviting the public into packing plants and onto feedlots and ranches would start to explode some of the myths about modern beef production. You might think it's too risky to expose the industry in this way, that people might be put off by seeing how beef is produced. I look at it the opposite way. The industry runs the risk of remaining under constant attack by the media and other groups if it doesn't open the door and invite the public in.