Want to know the definition of a hollow victory? The anticipated European Union-U.S. agreement on hormone-treated beef is a good example. How about the age fight regarding U.S. beef exports to Japan? One might also consider the South Korean market, where we actually regained lost markets only to find consumer confidence so shaken in the process that it might be decades before we get back to the levels we once enjoyed.
Then there’s the news of the latest rounds of nutritional studies which indicate beef might actually be pretty good for you and that balance is the key. It’s something we may have known all along – and the feeling of vindication is great – but just stop someone on the street and ask them if burger or steak is healthier than chicken or pork. You’ll quickly learn the health question is another battle that we lost, not in the final outcome but in the battle that framed it.
Another great example is the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and it doesn't matter if you oppose or support it. USDA lost the war by losing control of the battle; all of those years of inaction doomed NAIS.
Sure, USA beef is safe from BSE and always was; it was a non-issue all along. But the world reaction and our inability to influence our government to act quickly and decisively allowed public opinion to form against U.S. product. And, none of the official pronouncements to the contrary will matter.
Part of the problem is most people in the livestock industry have science degrees. They have a strong allegiance to fact and science-based solutions, whether it’s in regard to winning market access, product healthfulness, environmental and animal-care issues. In the end, the courts, the governing bodies and the experts may all side with us, but they will be hollow victories because the damage doesn’t come in the final outcome of these battles but in the length, course and direction that the battles take. And that is where public perception is formed. True victories are measured by market share and consumer perceptions long after the particular outcome has been decided.
A recent political commentator remarked that recent events in the Kuwaiti, Lebanese and Iranian elections indicate that George W. Bush in fact may have been right about freedom and democracy. The thinking is we’re now seeing those seeds germinating to offer the first real chance for a different Middle East – one that is supportive of our key interests. But that likely would matter little to most of us because we’ve already decided George W. was wrong.
The lesson is clear – being right means nothing if everyone thinks you were wrong. The irony is that our greatest victories have been costly, and our defeats a positive.