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Don't swallow everything

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Inconsistency in life can cause intestinal pain. I guess that is why they call it a “gut feeling” when something just doesn’t meet your approval but you can’t figure out why. My latest is the whole controversy over where beef and pork originates and why some places are good and some are bad. I’m afraid that politics is in the mix, and that adds to my gastric distress.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service amended its regulations to allow the importation of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from two regions in South America. This caused great condemnation by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association because they fear increased risk of Foot and Mouth Disease. But the Department of Homeland Security proudly announced that Kansas State University was selected as the site of the National Bio and Agro-Defense facility. It is said that the Manhattan location puts the NBAF in proximity to research of NBAF-related missions in veterinary, agriculture and bio-security research expertise and resources. But doesn’t it also put it right in the middle of a large population of range and feedlot cattle?

I have been told to be deathly afraid of FMD my whole life, and I believe it is a very contagious disease that could spread through our livestock and do billions of dollars in damage. It seems logical that shipping cold beef 4,000 miles would mitigate the risk, but bringing highly virulent diseases into the middle of cattle country, even in a secure facility, seems to be a reach. Is there any chance that Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the most powerful agricultural voice in Congress, had anything to do with this?

I can see that shipping beef in from expanded regions of Brazil and Argentina will be good for the American consumer in a time of high prices in the United States. We already ship beef from Uruguay and other regions, so why is this a threat to anything other than the profit now being made by U.S. cattle producers?

If it is bad, why don’t we label this beef? That way those who don’t want it, because of lower quality or higher risk to U.S. cattle interests, will know not to buy it. Well, we can’t do that because country-of-origin labeling, at least mandatory labeling, is against trade laws and is strongly opposed by NCBA, meat packers and many other livestock groups.

It also wrenches my gut that interests in Brazil and China are now buying packing facilities and livestock production in the United States. If they are doing so, doesn’t it seem logical that they will have a supply chain that will run from continent to continent so they can source at points of surplus and ship to points of shortage? JBS, a Brazilian firm, is now the world’s largest meat processor. It owns U.S.-based Swift packing and just bought Cargill’s swine interests in the U.S. A couple of years ago, Smithfield sold to Shuanghui, a Chinese firm that is shipping U.S. pork to discriminating Chinese consumers who fear their own domestically produced meat.

China, it appears, likes U.S. produced meat but still has a ban on U.S. beef that began in 2003 when we had a singular case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. However, China gets a lot of U.S. beef that is trans-shipped through Hong Kong and so it goes.

As a nation, we favor free trade but as interest groups, we want to sell to everyone yet not allow everyone to sell into our market. However, we favor allowing packing companies to become multi-national and buy and sell everywhere.

I worked in Washington, D.C., for five years, and my biggest challenge was to deal with people who could not tell you what they thought until they checked which way the wind was blowing. Everyone there is linked to everyone else. Some are allies and others are enemies. The American public was not considered when decisions were made. The result is a convoluted political mess that would rival the intestinal swirl of a horse with colic.

Animal agriculture and the meat industry have no monopoly on complex alliances. It runs across the board. Newer sectors, such as biofuels, still battle openly with their detractors, but that will change over time as business interests consolidate and more sophisticated strategies are developed. Valero, a large petroleum refiner, owns several ethanol plants in the Midwest, but they post signs on their retail locations in Oklahoma that say: “No Alcohol in our Gasoline.” That may be true in a single pump at a single station but the overall company is blending 10 percent ethanol, or more, and making money doing it.

It is said that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not buying that line either. Knowledge that goes beyond a press release or a lobbyist statement allows me to make my own determination of the truth. I don’t like to swallow something I don’t understand. I guess that’s where I started this article. You can take it from there.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 40 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.

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