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Sane cow disease: Will ranchers and consumers catch grass-fed fever?

By Wylie Harris

(Monday, May 24, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Like most U.S. ranchers, I went a little weak in the knees at this country’s first case of mad-cow disease. But after the quick rebound in cattle prices and consumer confidence, I’m more heartsick than relieved. For all the harm that one BSE-infected cow could have done the beef industry, she also sent a signal for much-needed changes that would increase both the economic viability of small cattle producers and the health and safety value of our product. So far, that signal has gone unheard.

The USDA has closed its investigation, saying that U.S. beef is still the safest in the world. But 86 % of the cattle that came in from Canada with the sick one are still unaccounted for. The FDA banned downer cattle from human consumption – but now the word is that the infected one wasn’t a downer after all. Of the 23 other countries that have had one case of BSE, all but four have found others, many younger than 30 months. But instead of trying to get a handle on the size of our problem, we’re ignoring it.

Testing every cow slaughtered, as Japan does, would cost the beef industry a high-end estimate of $500 million – a fraction of the $3 billion lost to other countries’ BSE-induced bans on U.S. beef. Controlling 80% of the market, the largest four feeders and packers can weather a hit like that. It may even help them further consolidate their share – an idea that sounds less far-fetched with a federal court having just fined the nation’s largest beef packer almost $1.3 billion for manipulating prices.

Sixty-three per cent of U.S. beef is processed in just 14 giant plants, each handling over a million animals a year. When operations of that size dominate, safety and care give way to speed and volume. This explains both the frequency of beef recalls like ConAgra’s 19 million pound one in 2002, and the fact that a recent study found that half of sampled supermarket meats in Washington, D.C., contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The system grew these warts in response to political lobbying by the big feeders and packers. Time and again, these companies have fought legislation that benefited consumers and small producers: country-of-origin labeling, bans on downer cattle, and prohibitions on animal tissues – thought to be the source of BSE – in feedlot rations.

Scientific studies show that grass-fed beef is leaner, healthier, and safer than the feedlot variety. It’s frustrating to raise calves on pasture, only to sell them into a feedlot system that neither recognizes nor preserves the value of the practice. But against the market share and political clout of the industry giants, there doesn’t seem to be much choice.

Or is there? Though 90% of fattened beef cattle in the U.S. come from feedlots holding upwards of 500 animals, half of them start out in herds smaller than 100 head, many on pasture. A quarter of these are in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, where most producers still have a custom processor within 30 miles.

Kerr Center surveys found that 47% to 80% of consumers in those states would pay up to $1.60 more per pound – 16 times the cost of universal BSE testing – for “natural beef,” which was defined in the survey as “a high quality beef product raised without any hormones or antibiotics. Family farmers and ranchers who produce natural beef are committed to agricultural production methods that ensure the protection and enhancement of natural resources and believe in humane treatment of animals.”

Pasture-finished beef fits this definition well. Small producers who pasture-finish, custom-process, and direct-market their beef can create a safer, saner product, boost their local economies, and earn higher profits. The first step is only a trailer ride away, and customers are as close as websites like www.eatwellguide.org.

This piece first appeared in Field Notes, v.30, #1, spring 2004. Used by permission of Oklahoma's Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture). ( http://www.kerrcenter.com/nwsltr/2004/spring2004/news_sane_cow.html )