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December 2009 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Your Chance to Make Beef Safer

Dec 31, 2009

By Steve Cornett

Another week, another needless E. coli O157:H7 problem.

Look at the comments that follow this Washington Post article.

You don’t want people saying that kind of stuff about your product. Oh? Right. This wasn’t “your” product. This was probably some old cow that needed the needle and a bunch of sauce to be tasty. Probably, given the nature of the bacteria involved, she was a dairy cow.

So you and I, our hands are clean, right? Wrong, not one of those Washington Post commenters can tell the difference in the product from Oklahoma and the product from your herd.

We don’t need to do this. We’ve known for years that there is a vaccine that will virtually eliminate the shedding of the bacteria that’s causing all this mayhem. Here’s an old report on the vaccine offered by Epitopix.

That company’s vaccine was approved for research purposes last spring and shows great promise of reducing the challenge facing packers in keeping O157:H7 out of their product.

Dr. James D. Sandstrom, general manager of Epitopix, told me Wednesday that the product protects 65% to 70% of vaccinated cattle from showing positive for the bacteria and, more importantly, reduces the number of bacteria shed—and thus a threat to the food supply—by more than 99.9%.

And remember, please, that it’s just like your daddy told you years ago. A little cow poop never hurt anybody. It’s the bacteria in there that causes the problem. No bacteria, no problem.
Let me do this math here right quick. Say we’ve had 50 recalls in the last two years, so if you reduced that by 99.9%, that would mean you would have had, rounded off, something like ½ of one outbreak.

Cargill, (and bless that Big Corporation for all it has tried and adopted in the effort to make safer beef) has a big project going to see how effective the vaccine is in real life. They’ve go about a hundred thousand cattle on feed vaccinated and will see as they head for harvest how it performs.

All the research indicates it will be an effective string in the safety net that packers—and cattle producers—must employ to keep these recalls at a minimum.

The industry—make that the packers and the beef checkoff—has made great strides in making beef safer. Cattle producers have done nothing. Until now, there really hasn’t been anything they could do.
The vaccine will change that, and we must do more. Rely on packers to always keep their beef clean anymore than we can count on elevators to keep rat pellets and bird dropping out of the flour and soya. Mistakes happen.

We can’t rely on consumers to cook meat to a safe temperature. Partly because they’re—well, make that WE’RE, your reporter being a fancier of rare hamburger—too dumb and careless.

For that matter, I’m not sure we really want consumers to have to cook the taste out of their beef to feel safe. The pork people sure wish folks trusted their product enough to eat it while it still has some flavor.

Nobody’s sure how this disjointed industry of ours will adopt this new technology. There’s not much reason for me to vaccinate my calves in the feedlot or you to vaccinate your dairy culls. It’s no hide off us if some consumer gets sick eating our beef, is it? We’ll never even know.

That’s a problem for the packer. So I suppose he’ll have to foot that bill.

Or, more likely, require us to. And, by the way, while Dr. Sandstrom hasn’t priced his product publicly, it may take three doses at something like $3 a pop. This won’t be cheap and it has to happen well before harvest—long before packers own the cattle.

You’ll note in the research above that there was, at that time, no “best management practice” feeders could employ to fight E. coli.

It looks like a vaccine might offer one.

I’m no lawyer, so I can’t even guess what that might mean in terms of liability. Maybe we should check with these folks: Marler Clark, a law firm that makes a habit of finding people to blame for these outbreaks.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at


Don’t Forget to Write

Dec 28, 2009

By Steve Cornett

As the New Year approaches, this is the last week for what?

You’re thinking about moving bills into the old year, aren’t you? Or, if it’s been one of THOSE years for you, maybe trying to shift some income forward?

Not me. I don’t like managing taxes. I like bloviating about agricultural politics. So for me, this is the last week to submit comments to the Department of Justice on what you think is wrong with the way the cattle business is structured.

You’ll recall that DOJ and USDA are planning to conduct a series of workshops during 2010 to explore issues arising from things like vertical integration in agriculture. This could, judging from some of the statements attributed to administration players, be part of that “fundamental restructuring” that Obama promised during his campaign.

For instance, I see the boss of the Packers and Stockyards Association quoted by a friend as having said that “corporations are like sharks. They just swim and eat.”

I’m not a big fan of corporations myself. But I think they have their place, and I fret as much—nowadays, at least—about the backfires of government’s soft-hearted, and softer-headed, efforts to “help,” than I do the greed of corporations.
I know from reading my mail, however, that there are a lot of cattle producers out there who lay awake nights worrying about these very issues, believing that corporate power and government passivity are fully reponsible for so many producers disappearing the last few decades. 

Let’s just hope that all these hearings—and the legislation that results—find solutions to problems and not just scapegoats.

One hopeful note—at least in my beef backer’s book—was struck earlier this month when P&SA moved to put a few more shackles on poultry integrators. It’s the first time in a long time that USDA has done anything to tighten the screws on beef’s "cheep" meat competitors. One doubts consumers will benefit much, but my policy goes like this “if it makes chicken cost more, I’m all for it.”

That’s been, and remains, my concern.  The beef industry can probably prosper despite the millstone of populist government interference if the competition has to operate under the same rules. But not if the industry is forced, unilaterally, into structural mayhem in the name of “fairness.”

It’s just my opinion—and my daughter loves to remind me during political discussions that “everybody has one”—that so long as you’ve got giant retail chains and integrated poultry and pork industries in the mix, about the dumbest way you could possibly “help” cattle producers is to cripple the people and, yes, corporations, who market their product..

All that said, and despite knowing that people who agree will never bother with letters to DOJ, let’s reiterate:

Dec. 31 is the deadline for submitting your own opinion on the effects concentration and integration have had on the cattle business and agriculture in general. You can find instructions and addresses at

Just guessing, but I imagine they would really like to hear from you if it’s been one of THOSE years this year for you. Maybe you’ll get to play Joe the Plumber in one or more congressional campaigns next year.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to signup.


Eating Meat and Two-Piece Bathing Suits

Dec 14, 2009

By Steve Cornett

"Buying gifts for vegans is tricky, no doubt. But it’s not impossible, as long as you’re conscientious about what you’re buying. Read the labels. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And by all means, even ask Vegan Katie. She loves talking about veganism, because it’s something that she’s passionate about.

I lifted that from an Internet site, offering advice on how to shop for non-offensive gifts for Christmas for a hypothetical vegan named Katie.

A quick browse through responses to my most recent blog makes you think “passionate” is an understatement.  “Rabid” would be a more apt.  The point of the piece was sort of joking around, teasing our meat-phobic neighbors about a popular song that gently suggested the writer would rather hang with her dog than a “vegan and a pothead.”

The message from the responses was plain: “Do NOT joke about vegans! Murderer!”  We should have seen it coming. How cranky would you be if you hadn’t had a decent meal in months?

Belatedly, I remember this isn’t about diets. It’s about a religion for folks who’ve largely cast aside the versions they were raised with. So, now I get it. It’s like I can joke about Baptists being, say, square, but only if I’m a Baptist. In fact, I’ve lived in a Baptist town for some six decades now, so I should have known better.

I mean I’ve told a few Baptist jokes in my time. My favorite being the one about the Texan who dies and goes to Heaven and St. Peter is showing him around, and he sees a room full of guys playing cards. He asks, are those men gambling? St. Peter nods. Next room, folks are dancing. The guys raises his eyebrows quizzically at St. Peter, who nods again. At the next room, there’s a full bar set up. Wow, says the Texan, we can’t do any of that in Texas. “Yes,” says St. Peter. “But we don’t have as many Baptists up here.”

But I can’t tell that to a Baptist because I’m not a Baptist. It’s like telling horse jokes to your horse. It’s hard to tell if they catch it or not. All you get is a long face and maybe a snort.

So you don’t do it. And, for that matter, unless you’re possessed of a missionary zeal, you don’t try to talk people out of their religions, no matter how illogical they may seem to you.

Here’s part of agriculture’s challenge: A high percentage of Americans have lost their roots. Not just their agricultural roots, but their ethical foundation. If you don’t “believe in organized religion” and you don’t believe in a heaven-sent moral code, then you’re forced to find a new way to determine right from wrong.

And a whole lot of folks are having trouble finding anything they think is “wrong.” The list isn’t very long nowadays. I mean think about all the stuff my preacher told me not to do that are perfectly acceptable today. I remember a sermon about two piece bathing suits at the city pool, for goodness’ sake. You haven’t heard one of those in a while, have you?

A couple of millennia back, a lot of religions involved animal sacrifice. But religion has changed. People have been fighting chickens and betting on dog fights forever. Now those sports are taboo.

More people than ever don’t buy into the old religious beliefs. Consider how much change there has been in U.S. churches in the last generation or two. I’m no scholar, but I doubt it’s because God or Allah has changed his or her mind about things like eating fish on Fridays, letting women preach and two-piece bathing suits. The change has been right here on Earth. We’ve changed, and we don’t like old rules.

So we need, and are creating, new rules. Among the more threatening, from the standpoint of those of us who depend on the status quo at least, are things like ardent environmentalism and strident veganism. They come complete with the same proselytizing and missionaries of earlier religions.
And, as the high priests at PETA and HSUS have found, preaching the word can be highly profitable.

Maybe I’m overreaching here, I’ve never seen a study showing church goers are less likely to be vegans. But I know some of both and none of those I know are both religious and veganistic. So it’s anecdotal. And the way my cousin Jo preached to me about eating meat reminds me of the way preachers used to talk about sin.

Religions have a way of getting their rules codified to make non-believers act as true believers in regards to what is proper. Consider Sharia law, for instance. Or, witness the EPA’s decision to treat CO2 as a pollutant. People driving Suburbans and F250s around, are, to the new religionists, as people shopping on Sundays were to the more churchy of our forebears in the days of Blue Laws. Shouldn’t be done; There ought to be a law. 

Alas, the constitution does not demand separation of this sort of “church” and state.      

Last week, in fact, the Pollan Principle, of which we’ve spoken here too often, got an official boost from the government of the United Kingdom. You can read the report here.

This is not going to go away, folks. These new evangelicals are going to keep hammering on these themes in the developed countries.  The beef industry’s future in these countries—with stagnant income growth, nearly stable populations and affluence-guilt—is limited. The future must be in building and serving the broader, worldwide market. 

Vegan Katie isn’t where it’s at. Statistically, she will probably backslide some day, but she will never be a true meat eater. For that matter, neither will her children.

The future is in China and Indonesia and all the places crawling out of poverty doing the jobs Americans used to do. That market is increasing in affluence, but still protein-deficient. And huge.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to register.


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