Where’s the Beef?

by Gilles Stockton

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue probably expects that his press release announcing more access to Japan’s market for U.S. Beef will have cattle ranchers dancing a jig.  But frankly, there is not enough of a musical beat in this trade agreement to cause anyone to even tap their toes. All that Japan did was lift a ban on importing beef from cattle more than thirty months of age. 

What kind of meat comes from cattle more than thirty months of age – hamburger! We don’t export hamburger; we import hamburger.  We import so much hamburger that the cull cows I sold this spring brought just 52 cents a pound. For the past sixteen years Japan had been buying this type of meat from Australia or South America. 

Why would they start importing this beef from the United States and if we were to export what we have, we would in turn need to import the same thing from Australia or South America.  It makes little sense and I suspect that to come up with the promised annual $200 million more in beef exports, Secretary Purdue must have gathered his staff, passed around a jug of cheap wine and a bong until someone became inspired enough to shout out the magic number.

Thinking about the whole issue of the Japanese beef trade just makes me mad.  In 2003 a cow that had been recently imported from Canada was diagnosed with Classical Mad Cows Disease (BSE).  Our veterinary authorities did the responsible thing and shut off cattle and beef imports from Canada.  Other countries followed suit and suspended imports from both Canada and the US, as they were required to do by international veterinary protocols. 

Thankfully it turned out the U.S. did not in fact have a BSE infection problem. However, Canada did, and continued to discover BSE infected cattle, the last one in 2015. So, what did our government do after it became clear that there was no BSE in the American herd, they opened up imports of cattle from Canada. In 2005 our government apparently decided that we love our Canadian brothers and sisters so much that we volunteered to share in their international disease status. Japan of course extended their ban of US beef since meat from Canadian cattle was intermixed with our product. This move restored the ability of the beef packing cartel to manipulate the U.S. cattle market. Between the reduced exports and the packer market manipulation, US cattle prices went down. 

It wasn’t until 2013, years after the Bush Administration deliberately put the US beef supply in jeopardy, that Japan allowed the import of beef from cattle less than 30 months of age. By then it had become clear to everyone that younger cattle did not have the time to develop BSE. Secretary Purdue is now taking credit for opening up the Japanese market to meat from older cows. I am sorry but this is just a big “nothing” burger.

If Secretary Purdue wants to get cattle ranchers dancing in the streets, he should do something to fix the market that is giving us 52 cents for culls and $1.50 for feeder calves.  He can start by calling for Congress to restore Country of Origin Labeling for beef.  He could then follow up by signing off on the GIPSA Rules that give contract growers the right to sue chicken, pork, and beef integrators for fraudulent market practices. Then to really make us happy, he could adopt the recommendation of the “Captive Supply Reform Act” and require beef packers to actually bid in a transparent competitive market for their fat cattle supplies.

Now if Secretary Purdue did all that, I for one will break out of my slow cowboy two step shuffle and try some fancy Western Swing moves with my honey. 

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