By Steve Cornett
Chandler Keys is probably right and so is John Phipps when they doubt the wisdom of this reporter’s ruminations.
Keys, the longtime—and much respected for his prowess as a—beef lobbyist described a recent effort with a scatological reference to poultry manure.
Phipps, the host of U.S. Farm Report and among my favorite writers, found fault with the logic of another column a few weeks back.
Keys' complaint dealt with JBS and their plan to buy Pilgrim’s Pride, the fowl outfit. He currently works for JBS and took affront at my doubting whether the Obama administration would allow the deal to go through and my fretting about the loss of another ally in the war of attrition between beef and chicken.
Phipps dealt with an earlier effort, in which I suggested that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association would be more effective if they required some sort of super majority before taking sides on matters involving intra-industry politics. One of Phipps' points—and he was not alone in his doubts—is that if you wait for total consensus, you risk becoming a do-nothing.
Again, they’re probably right. But...
Keys says my concerns about mixing poultry and beef are unfounded. He says JBS will run the beef, pork and poultry divisions as separate divisions. They’ll have different sales staffs, etc. He cautions against presuming that just because Tyson does something I should assume JBS will do the same.
I’ve no doubts about that. However, I want to remind you that my big concern is losing an ally—an on-the-ground, in the meat case, watchdog—for beef. Regulators make all sorts of rules that impact the competitive positions of the competing meats.
You can pump water into a chicken and sell water at chicken prices. If a processor knows he can sell more pounds of fowl than he buys, he’s going to pay more or charge less and that is a competitive advantage.
The chicken guys could reasonably argue that water tastes better than chicken and is better for you, I presume. Agreed, but I’d still rather see somebody from the beef side up there arguing against it or at least demanding a level playing field.
That’s just one such rule. COOL is harder on beef than on poultry. You’ve got waste regulations that apply differently to the different species. Food safety regulations. Labeling regulations.
Cow people are in competition with fowl people. I want our sales staff to be in competition with their sales staff. I want our packers to be in competition with fowl packers and not just each other. I want them looking for new beef products to sell against poultry's new products, not just their beef competitors.
Keys (and about everybody else I’ve talked to with some savvy about these things) says “pshaw”. (Actually, he said “chicken expletive” but I think that’s just because now that he’s a poultry lobbyist he probably has chicken expletive on the brain. I’ve known him 20 years or more and he used to say bull expletive.) He says anti-trust law isn’t meant to work that way. It’s not meant to limit horizontal integration, and especially not since all they’re doing is more of the same thing Tyson does.
I’ve no doubt he’s correct. He’s been talking to lots of lawyers about the very topic. So I’ll concede he’s correct. I just don’t concede it’s right.
And the reason is that Phipps is also right, and NCBA isn’t about to adopt some super majority requirement just to be a “big tent” organization. As three different guys inside the NCBA loop have told me, “you can’t be all things to all people.”
John, in a blog you can still find by clicking here, argues that if you require a supermajority:
- Little ever gets done. Supermajorities are really, really hard to accomplish. If organizations adopt super-majorities they end up pandering to various factions to get those last few votes. See also: Senate, US.
- Ignoring issues that are divisive encourages the development of minority opinions. Keep in mind, remaining silent on an issue is in itself a position. Depending on what constitutes a "big enough" minority (30%? 40%?) to remove an issue for the agenda, single issue proponents will diminish the range of subjects the group can address. In other words, the number of issues the group can address will dwindle rapidly, I think.
- Without majority rule to enforce going along for the good of the many, there is no reason to ever agree - and I think we have ample history of how close votes in legislatures and courts have created the stable rules for advancing social and economic progress.
- Most importantly, I cannot see organization staff members embracing eagerly taking items off the agenda simply because they are divisive. That takes work and jobs from their profession.
I argue with none of those points. But, since he fetched up the Senate, consider how conservatives are going to react if the Senate suspends those supermajority rules to pass a controversial health care bill. They’re going to feel “disenfranchised.”
They can’t drop out of the U.S. and form a health-care R-CALF with a goal in life of looking for points upon which to disagree with the “other side” but if they could...well, ask Rick Perry, the Texas governor who has floated the idea of secession.
The beef industry needs a good, strong organization. That organization needs to be devoted—passionately devoted—to the principles outlined in NCBA’s mission statement summarized on every news release as: working to increase profit opportunities for cattle and beef producers by enhancing the business climate and building consumer demand.
And I would argue that’s a big enough job to require everybody working together—and exclusively—on doing just that. That means a big tent organization with producers and processors on the same team.
Pragmatically it could be we are entering a time for smaller tents - even pup tents with 1-2 in each. The power of the individual has never been greater to affect public policy.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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