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February 2009 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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A medical term for vegetarians

Feb 26, 2009

By Steve Cornett

Those of you who criticize the New York Times should go over to their site and read the story about how damaging dietary fetishes can be. Follow this link to the story.

It’s an uncommonly (these days) common-sense approach to the dangers shouldered by people who approach nutrition with the simplistic “good food, bad food” attitude that leads to goofy things like bulimia, anorexia and other abnormal forms of vegetarianism.

Plus, the article includes a fine new word I hope I can remember: orthorexia, meaning people who starve their foolish selves because they think it is unethical to eat certain things.

To my reading of the word, we no longer need refer to the different species of meat-avoiders as “vegetarian” or “vegan” or “emaciated.” We should just call them orthorexics and refer them to a good counselor for treatment.


A long four years looms

Feb 24, 2009

By Steve Cornett

On Tuesday, at the invitation of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard participated in a conference call with the Secretary, along with representatives of the National Farmers Union, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch and the American Farm Bureau Federation, to address problems with loopholes in the final mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule, originally scheduled to take effect in March.” 

That was the lead on a news release sent out last week from R-Calf. If you don’t think this is going to be a long four years for mainstream agriculture—or “factory farmers” as most of the guys on that list of organizations like to say—go look at the websites and  study the policies of the groups the new secretary chose to let in on this first big news of his new job.

As it turned out, the news was maybe not as big as Vilsack originally thought. Later on Tuesday, his office announced he would hold a press conference on Wednesday to explain the changes to reporters. But apparently, he had made a mistake in thinking the decision was his alone, because on Wednesday morning, reporters’ inboxes had a note from USDA saying the press conference had been cancelled, “due to a scheduling conflict.”

That sounded a little like maybe the secretary’s schedule was in conflict, but as it turned out, the schedule conflicted with belonged to President Obama. He was scheduled to spend Thursday in Canada trying to reassure folks there that he was not as anti-trade as he sounded during the campaign. That would be the same Canada, the one north of here that had earlier threatened to file a WTO suit against the U.S. because of the COOL law. The same Canada that withdrew the threat after it saw the final rule that Vilsack was telling R-CALF he would scuttle.

Apparently, the new secretary had not—here’s a word we hear a lot these days--“vetted” his COOL plan with the White House. I guess all the other players in the administration kind of liked the way the old USDA wrote the rule. There is reason for that. It gives consumers a chance to choose U.S. product if they want and the meat packers claim that 90% or 95% or more of all beef will be labeled specifically. Plus, why would Obama want to pick a fight with Canada right now? His plate is pretty full as is. 

So, by Friday, the Secretary simply announced that COOL would go into effect March 16 as planned by the Bush USDA. But, in an unusual letter to packers, he suggested marketers voluntarily adhere to stricter rules or “I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to achieve the intent of congress.”

The packers already had that message in hand and are planning to segregate a large percentage of beef by country of origin. It’s unclear to me at least, given the limitations placed on what packers can demand of producers, how they might be able to include on labels whether cattle were born and raised in country X or just born in country X and raised in country Y.

But on March 16 there will be mandatory COOL throughout the land.

The importance of the COOL law and rule is overplayed on both sides of the rhetorical aisle. It will go into effect and you and I and consumers will hardly notice. If it’s change you’re looking for, consider that list of groups the secretary thought important enough to include in his loop on his plan. This is not a secretary who regards himself as a front man for agriculture, and he has told the press as much. He says he was an overweight as a kid and he thinks parents could use more government help in learning how to teach their children to be healthy eaters.

Just how much he has bought into the Pollan Premise—food is too cheap and too energy dependent—we won’t know until later. But I don’t ever remember, even during the Carter Administration, a secretary of agriculture putting consumerist groups so far up the list of People to Please. It will be an interesting four years, indeed.

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 subscribe.


Who’s selling COOL?

Feb 10, 2009

Leaving the National Cattlemen's Beef Association’s (NCBA) annual convention last week, two things were clear: We are going to have a significant amount of U.S. labeled beef on grocery shelves, and we are going to have a go at rewriting the beef checkoff.

The former became clear to this reporter during a discussion with Ken Bull, head buyer at Cargill. He said his company would devote a northern plant to mixed Canada and U.S. origin cattle and a southern plant to Mexican and U.S. cattle.

Asked why not just continue to label almost everything as possibly a product of all three countries as he and his competitors have been doing, he said, “We don’t think it’s in the spirit of the law….we think they have the votes (in Congress)” to remove any leniency USDA chooses to provide.

In the same vein, Chandler Keyes of JBS told us, “COOL is the law of the land. We think it’s time to move on.”

So we are about to have something of a U.S. “brand.” It will include Certified Angus Beef cattle and it will include canners, cutters, Holstein cows and rawboned, no-roll, one testicled bull/steers fresh from 3-year-careers in weed control on hobby farms. I’m not sure what our unique selling point will be, but I am sure that if we’re to have a brand, we need a marketing program to support it.

Which brings us back to the checkoff. Both the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB)and NCBA voted to promote changes in the checkoff program. What they want—what about anybody must agree they need—is to increase the per-head fee.

They know the chances of that passing a new referendum without major changes is remote, despite the fact that their surveys show, in general, widespread support for the program. “In general” supporters don’t vote as reliably as energized members of opposition groups, and without a rewrite of the checkoff act, there would be plenty of those.

So they suggest several changes, and the CBB goes so far as to say they now believe checkoff funds could be used to support a U.S. brand. Assuming, at least, it is an official brand.

I hope somebody has given that a lot more forethought than I’ve seen evidenced. Again, this “brand” of beef will include every grade and quality of beef this diverse industry produces. Had we had it identified the last few years, this “brand” would have been at the root of every e. coli scare the government has traced and one of the two BSE scares. It includes 95% of the beef in the mix and it will probably produce 95% or more of the bad headlines and 95% or more of the bad (as well as the great, of course!) eating experiences.

The packers and grocers will have little if any incentive to push the product harder than the Canadian or Mexican beef they’re buying at, presumably, discounted prices.
The post-harvest segments fought COOL, and the beef industry made no friends among them in pushing the program down their throats. The value of a COOL program—providing the rudiments of a trace back program that will allow regulators and consumers to more quickly isolate and segregate the source of problems—can be considerable, long term.

It will take more than country of origin labeling to realize that value, however. COOL will provide the nucleus for that system one day—and I suspect a lot of COOL supporters, when ordered by their buyers to provide enough information to allow total traceback will set up a howl that will dwarf the noise they’re already making about the National Animal Identification System.

What’s important now is for somebody to get busy organizing a “brand” the checkoff can promote. Maybe it’s just “buy USA” but it must be there to help educate people and get them looking for that label. And, while we’re at it, get the minority of people who care about the source of their beef—the Lou Dobbs fanatics—to begin demanding their the restaurants they frequent to begin sourcing U.S. beef.

There’s not much demand for that now. But there has never really been a way for cafes—even those advertising  “All American Beef” to really know where their beef began its life. There is now going to be a world of that product available if Ken Bull and Chandler Keyes are right. They might as well get pressured to buy it.

As McDonalds has proven time after time, it only takes a bit of consumer pressure to make food service folks think they’re up against tectonic shift. Hey, it’s the law of the land. Good law, bad law--we may as well squeeze what we can out of this thing.

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 subscribe.


Oh. That's different.

Feb 04, 2009

By Steve Cornett

It is good that we talked like this.

I refer to the recent set of blogs and reactions to the trial balloon of a government-funded dairy buyout. The good news, from this writer’s perspective, is that apparently there is not going to be any such program.

The lobby dudes at NCBA tell me they “jumped on it early” while it was still a trial balloon, and said balloon is now deflated.

Great. It sounds like the dairy folks will use their own money to buy each other out of business. Sort of like a privately-funded retirement program, I suppose. Or, perhaps more like big companies buying out little companies. That’s fine. It was the government part that bugged me and lots of beef people and so, as Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say after her rants on Saturday Night Live: “Oh. That’s different. Never mind.”

That apology tendered, the comments by the anonymouses make me think not all the correspondents fully recognize the difference in a federal buyout and a privately funded buyout. If you read the comments, you’ll note repeated references to the fact that the cows are in excess and they must be culled

It’s not just the obvious principle of the matter of the government subsidizing one market participant at the expense of another. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the way government interventions work.

A cattle feeder can measure and/or manage a lot of his risks. You can kind of presume you might or might not get a big runup in feed prices and use the futures to protect yourself a little bit. You know there’s X% chance the calves will die and Y% chance you’ll get a blizzard. If you subscribe to CattleFax, you know within a range how many cattle are coming to market on top of yours. You can then use the futures markets to protect yourself a little bit.

You can keep one eye on the dairy market. The projections for cow slaughter include assumptions about dairy prices and cull rates and such. So if there are an extra quarter-million dairy cows in the herd, you can budget for them to enter the market over time. 

But “over time” is the crucial brake on it all.
The government is unpredictable. You can’t bet they’ll do what’s smart. You can’t bet they’ll do what’s fair. They could just as easily have bought a bunch of cows and deported them to Bangladesh—reducing U.S. cow kill—as dumping them on the market.

I mean, have you been watching the news lately?  Care to predict where this "Keystone Kongress" is going next? Sorry. I’m channeling Ms. Roseannadanna again. 

What made the '86 buyout so bad was the suddenness of it. Everybody knew the dairy cows were coming to market that year. It was the suddenness of A) the announcement and B) the marketing period.

The beef market is not like the dairy market. There are no government guys figuring out what beef prices should be. Beef cow prices are mere ether. They are nothing but what a buyer and a seller think they should be and when you inject surprises and fears and uncertainties, you get problems.
Bottom line: It caught the beef industry by surprise, it provided a sudden oversupply. It was a very bad spell for the beef industry and the bad feelings are still there. That’s not good for either group, and one would wonder why this sort of thing plays out in public rather than behind the closed lobby office doors in Washington.

These guys should not be trial ballooning balloons they haven’t agreed upon. The dairy lobby should know they aren’t going to ever get another buyout over anything less than the dead--or soon-to-be-fired--bodies of NCBA’s lobbyists.
And, if nothing else good comes of this discussion, at least my wife finds that at least one anonymous source agrees with her that your reporter is “an idiot.”
Although, I guess that could have been her….

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