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April 2010 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Calvinball and Customs

Apr 27, 2010

By Steve Cornett

We got a news release last week from R-CALF USA in which they argue that, by considering a regional Foot and Mouth differentiation in Brazil,

“USDA is engaged in a high-risk and dangerous exercise of granting undeserved deference to the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health), making optimistic conclusions when faced with scientific uncertainty, and acting in a reactionary manner following the occurrence of FMD outbreaks rather than exercising precaution to protect U.S. livestock from the introduction of FMD.”

Now, I’m not at all anxious to see USDA allow Brazilian beef into the U.S. As I argued last week, if Brazil can’t assure us and the international arbiters that it can protect us from FMD, I say don’t let the stuff in. But, the attitude of R-CALF--this “granting undeserved deference to the OIE”--is the myopic epitome of the protectionist sentiment that has limited U.S. beef sales to Asia.

I may have mentioned before that I really, really hate the way Asia is ignoring the OIE on BSE rules. It is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s largely because there are a bunch of protectionists—there, not here, in this case--demanding overreaction.

If our Wall Builders go around talking about “undeserved deference to the OIE,” what moral authority do we have to be complaining about Korea or Japan making the same claim?

That’s like arguing that people who obey the speed limit are giving “undeserved deference” to the law. 

I’m a big believer in the rule of rules, and not because I like all the rules. To make the world work right, you agree on rules and you agree on an arbitration system to enforce the rules. If you don’t like the rules you’ve agreed to, you work to change the rules. You don’t just suddenly say, “oh, I don’t like that rule.”

That’s Calvinball, in the sense of the old Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, wherein you make up new rules as you need them to give you an advantage in a given situation.

R-CALF is, of course, asking Congress to do just that, to change the rules, and I’ve no doubt Congress will be happy to comply. That, like much of what Congress does, won’t make it smart. 

FMD will, eventually, find its way into the U.S. It probably won’t, however, be through a controlled, legal channel from a Brazil. It will more likely come in through our still-weak customs system on a pair of dirty boots (you’ll recall the African drums that came through customs a few years ago?) or some other carrier

Our /Ag Web colleague Greg Vincent recently led an agricultural tour to Brazil—the very Brazil of which we are speaking.

Yesterday morning we had this exchange:

From me: 
Greg, as you guys came in from Brazil, were there any extra precautions at customs because you had been in an FMD country?

From Greg:
I told everyone to make sure they marked down we were on farms and in livestock areas...and in fields for soybean rust concerns. My reason: I don't want FJM to be tied to anything that could be the result of FMD or a massive soybean rust outbreak. To my knowledge each of us marked it down on the sheet correctly.

They hardly even looked at us when we went through. Ran the bags through a scanner to make sure we weren't smuggling a ham, but that was it.

I was sort of appalled. At the very least I wanted a shoe cleaning. 

These were farmers, these travelers. They’d all been on farms in Brazil. They all were heading straight to farms in the U.S. It was up to them to not sneak some uncured treat or trinket in their bags. Fortunately, they were U.S. farmers with no reason to carry FMD to Oklahoma or Iowa.

I knew that would be the gist of his answer because I’ve been back and forth through customs enough to know how it works. It’s an honor system. Were I, say, a Brazilian cattleman—a member of the some protectionist Brazilian cattlemen’s club, say, who didn’t believe in the rule of rules—and I wanted to get a leg up on U.S. beef exporters, what’s to keep me from sneaking a bit of FMD in and turning it loose in some cattle auction?
I think we’ll get FMD in the U.S. By hook or by crook or by accident. When FMD hits YOUR home county, I want the world trading system to allow MY home county to continue exporting while the problem area is cleaned up. How can we logically deny Brazil the same opportunity? Yes, we should hold them to strict standards, just as we would an infected region in the U.S.

But to rewrite OIE standards to please our protectionist brethren, thus making a localized FMD outbreak even more damaging, is to give would-be terrorists a bigger club than the already have.
U.S. beef will be better off following the rules and demanding our trading partners do the same. If beef has a profitable, growing, future, it is overseas and not in a U.S. that is more concerned about obesity than protein and iron in the diet.
Like I say, competition-wise, it would suit me fine if OIE and USDA decide that Brazil can’t get clean enough, that there is no way for them to deliver us risk-free beef. I don’t relish the thought of more competition, either. But we agreed to the rules at hand. We should follow them. Rules is rules and if we don’t follow them, we can hardly expect others to, either. 

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


Animal Rights Becoming a Religion

Apr 22, 2010

By Steve Cornett

Some time back, I shared my argument about animal rights becoming a religion for a lot of people who’ve lost that old time one.

Once, for some reason, I remember writing a ditty that I think sums up the way some religions and “religions” approach nonbelievers. It goes thus:

There is this darker side of man:
We must have some we're better than

I believe the official sociology 101 term for that might be tribalism or ethnocentricity. We just have an innate need to look down on somebody. Rich guys look down on poor guys, regarding us as lazy or incompetent, and poor guys look down on rich guys for being—see any recent political argument—“greedy.”

So, anyhow, I laid out the argument the same way I do carpentry work: amateurishly. And I stick by it, but it’s always nice to find out somebody with more degrees and edification than I seems not only to share a belief, but is capable of making it sound smart:

You can read it by clicking on this link, where Dr. Paul Rubin draws some interesting parallels between environmentalism and religion.

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.



Golden Rule Foolish on Beef Trade?

Apr 19, 2010

By Steve Cornett

If we followed the golden rule in international trade, there would be less outcry from cattle producers about the Administration’s decision to declare the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina free of foot and mouth disease and potentially eligible to ship beef and pork to the U.S.

You’ve heard about it. Or you can read about it in the U.S. Cattlemen's Association's news release.

Brazil has had a long-standing WTO ruling that U.S. cotton subsidies violate trade rules. Last month, the Brazilian government announced it would impose new tariffs on a long list of U.S. products—products with an even longer list of politically powerful patrons.

It took about a week for the U.S. trade negotiators to cave and announce we would recognize Santa Catarina’s lack of recent FMD activity and begin a process that might allow fresh meat imports from that state.

On the one hand, I’m all golden rule-ish about that. I mean, how would you USCA members in, say, the Dakotas, feel if Texas, Nebraska and Kansas ranchers refused to allow your feeder cattle into their feedyards because a few bison in Wyoming have brucellosis?

But, alas, the golden rule is not really an important part of trade policy. Governments with special interests to protect have a tendency to require a bit more “scientific certainty” on stuff they import than they feel they should have to provide on the stuff they want to export.

And Japanese cars and U.S. beef, as per my point in a recent blog, are just one example.

Here’s how I would apply the golden rule to the Brazilian thing. If FMD were discovered in Hall County, Texas, our USDA system of control would be to attempt to contain the spread to that region. If I was in Hall County and you were in Pike County, Mo., I couldn’t ship you my cattle.

USDA would not quarantine you, except perhaps temporarily while they assessed the size of the outbreak. That strikes me as fair. I’m not sure why a producer in Missouri should have to suffer because of FMD in Texas.

So long, that is, as there were systems in place to keep that outbreak contained. So that’s how, I reason, we would “want to be treated,” golden rule-wise. So we should treat others the same way, right? So, I say, “Sure. If Santa Catarina is free of FMD and can provide assurances it can stay that way, let ‘em at us.”

And if they can’t provide those assurances, then we shouldn’t take a chance. No matter what the politics of cotton and medical supply exports. FMD, given current trade rules, is too dangerous to fool with.

I know lots of people believe Brazil will bury us in beef if we relax the FMD rules. I know lots of people believe Brazil is incapable of keeping FMD regionalized. On the former, my golden fool, I mean, rule, self says if they can grow beef better and cheaper than me, they should be doing it and I should be doing something else. I didn’t say that’s the best route for me; I just said it’s logical and it’s the path to a more just and affluent world.

On the latter point—how safe Santa Catarina beef really is—I guess we have to trust USDA’s judgment. But I’m nervous that this Administration—peopled with people apparently even more golden rule foolish than Jimmy Carter and me—is apparently not going to consider that safety in the vacuum of science. They apparently will look at the trade-off. They will, apparently, accept X amount of risk of FMD for Y amount of gain for cotton subsidies and auto exports.

That, I don’t like.

Either Santa Catarina beef is safe, or it’s not. If it is, we shouldn’t have been using the FMD excuse to keep the stuff out. If it’s not, we shouldn’t be letting it in, whether they buy our cars or not.

That’s the sort of protectionist thinking that is keeping U.S. beef out of much of Asia, and the naïve among us expect more from our governments. To me, if you say you’re going to accept OIE standards, you accept OIE standards. You don’t look for legal loopholes you can use to force concessions on other matters. I guess it’s the way it’s done and been done, but I don’t like it.

It’s not the way business is done in the cattle business. Well, I guess I take that back. I’ve done business with guys who do business like that, but not twice. And it’s no way to build a trusting, win-win relationship.

I know that Brazil is a scary competitor, and I know most cattle people would sure like to keep them out of our markets. But if we can get Asia opened up and eating beef, there will be more than enough market to go around.

In the long run, the way to apply the golden rule to FMD is to develop good, traceable vaccines and control programs that don’t bankrupt livestock industries in entire countries.

But for now, we need to be very careful. I presume Santa Catarina is fine. I mean, I’ve never seen any evidence of incompetence from any government agency, have you? I will admit that the threat of FMD entering the country from some other source—the soles of hiking boots from Uruguay perhaps, or yak jerky hidden in some traveler’s bags or, maybe, in a terrorist’s back pack.
But I don’t much like feeling like beef’s interests may be compromised for the good of other products. Do you?

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.


Food Safety Discussion You Should Follow

Apr 14, 2010

By Steve Cornett

Food safety stories seem to come and go with some regularity and little impact. And for good reason. They’re usually much scary verbiage based on few facts. Because our food supply—which will never be 100% safe for ANY food—is awfully safe and getting more so every year.

But Michael Moss has been awarded the Pulitzer for his New York Times piece of last year, and for good reason.

His story wasn’t just scary. It had some balance and it dealt with real, fixable, problems in meat inspection. Too many inside the beef industry believe that beef safety is just a public relations challenge. It is that. But the first law of public relations is to “do good then talk about it.”

We want beef to be as safe as possible, and if it takes painful reporting to get it that way, so be it.

Anyhow, Mr. Moss is hosting an online Q&A this week. I’ll follow it and suggest you do the same. Might even contribute a bit, just to make sure the HSUS followers don’t take it over. Follow the discussion here:


Ban Toyotas?

Apr 05, 2010

By Steve Cornett

Steve Fogelsong, president this year of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and I were talking about the latest intramural checkoff squabble when he said,  a bit gruffly I must admit, “There are a hundred more important things I’d rather we were talking about than this infighting.”

I demurred, of course. I said that in my line of work I have to write about what I think is most interesting. And then I said, but I know what you mean. It’s like the general media at the moment is obsessed with nastiness in politics so much that they can’t talk about anything else. Which, of course, foments more nastiness.

But, I suggested, nastiness is interesting and that’s what we write about. Interesting stuff.  

And then Steve told me about Sen. Mike Johanns, former governor of Nebraska and former secretary of agriculture, YouTube video and Japan. It is more interesting than the turf war.
But first, let’s deal quickly with the latest dust-up over the checkoff dollar. You can read the letter that started it at by following this link.  The groups that signed the missive are worried that NCBA’s new structure would increase the association’s control of checkoff funds.

Read NCBA’s rebuttal by clicking here.  Make up your own mind if you’re interested. For my money, it seems to me that the Federation of State Beef Councils is a voluntary organization. State councils can join or not join. I suspect if they think NCBA is too controlling, they’ll drop out. The thing was set up, intentionally, to respect what you might call “states’ rights.

But that is just an opinion and as my daughter loves to tell me after I express mine, “everybody has one, don’t they?” 

Now on to the Johanns YouTube thing.  It strikes me as timely for a couple of reasons. For one, our friends and fellow AgWeb bloggers at R-Calf, last week unveiled their latest scare campaign about BSE.

I don’t think everything R-Calf does is necessarily goofy and self-defeating. You don’t have to be goofy to obsess on industry consolidation. You don’t have to be goofy to be protectionist. But if you care about the beef market, trying to fan flame out of the smoking ruins of the BSE debacle is goofy.

If you want to hear the point argued well, go to YouTube and look at the video of Johanns talk about putting some pressure on Japan over that country’s reluctance to fully open the market to American beef.

He compares Japan’s treatment of U.S. beef with a hypothetical case of the U.S. using Toyota’s problems to justify banning the import of Japanese auto parts until their government—their GOVERNMENT, mind you—can guarantee there will be no more defects. 

The only asymmetry I can find in the analogy is that Japanese auto parts have actually been responsible for hurting people, while BSE from the U.S. has never hurt anybody. And isn’t likely to.

It’s such a strong point that I hope our current secretary of agriculture will provide the link to his meet-mates on his upcoming trade trip to Japan. The point applies as well to others, including Korea and China.

We’ve got some trading “partners” who don’t partner very well. A marriage counselor would suggest we be open in our communication. If Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will wag his finger hard enough to convey a mien of seriousness, we might see some movement in Asia.

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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