Trials and tribulations keep on coming for cattle industry

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It’s a good thing folks in the cattle and beef industry are tough and resilient considering what has happened to them over the past year or so. I should add patient to those attributes for their accepting with fortitude every new calamity and setback that would almost wipe out a lot of other industries. Perhaps after BSE 10 years ago, cattle producers and the beef-processing industry are just able to survive most anything. It’s even starting to feel like this is just the way the cattle and beef business has become. One starts to expect when, and not if, the next adversity will happen.

It’s certainly a rogue’s gallery of bad luck. About a year ago the American beef industry was battered by a contrived media hysteria about the use of so-called “pink slime,” more properly known as finely textured beef. Although it didn’t affect the Canadian retail market, as the product was not used here, the bad PR spilled over the border as the sensationalist media made ground beef in general look suspect in the eyes of the consumer. The truly sad part was that this was a perfectly safe use of a product that was otherwise discarded, rendered or used for pet food.

It didn’t take long for the next calamity to strike and it was a bombshell. E. coli 157 contamination broke out with some beef products made by XL Foods. Several people got sick, but no one died. This outbreak effectively put the company out of business. The meat recall, union belligerence, consumer suspicion, media hounding and CFIA antagonism made it all but impossible to restart the plant without big financial support from somewhere. Luckily a white knight in the form of JBS USA rode into town to save the day and the plant from a permanent shutdown. An investigation into the E. coli outbreak and the role of the CFIA has been announced. It’s desperately needed, but will it be forthright or will it bring another hit to the image of beef food safety?

Cattle and beef trade issues took a new turn and it wasn’t very positive. One has to feel real sympathy for CCA trade policy staff who have worked so hard for so many years to obtain more marketing access for Canadian cattle and beef, only to be constantly frustrated with new roadblocks and conniving foreign trade officials. Better access to European beef markets seem so close with a new free trade deal with the EU. But alas that seems unlikely as the EU will not give Canada any more access than it plans to give to the U.S. Not even a complete capitulation on more tariff-free EU cheese exports to Canada is likely to change their position. I suspect that Canada will throw Canadian beef exports under the bus just to sign a free trade agreement with the EU before it makes a deal with the U.S. I do wish that I am wrong, but there is a foreboding feeling about this trade deal that agriculture will be the sacrificial calf.

Just to add to CCA anxiety about trade issues, their pals at the USDA have shown their utter disdain of a WTO trade ruling on COOL. It responded by making COOL regulations even worse. It’s part of an attitude that those clever Yankee traders always display — “we export, you import.” They also know that it’s likely Canadian officials with their boy scout reputation, will eventually compromise and not impose retaliatory tariffs against some American imports.

The problem American trade officials have with WTO rulings is that some of them require changes to legislation already passed by Congress. Few bureaucrats have the inclination to go back to their political masters and tell them they made a mistake. I suspect that ‘delay, delay, delay’ is the real plan for COOL. But that seems to be the game with sore losers.

If all of that were not enough, there is more bad news for the cattle industry. The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency lost $8 million in the recent Alberta government budget. That may seem minor, but a big chunk will come out of cattle- and beef-related projects.

Then there is the recent agreement between Alberta Beef Producers and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association to continue the $1 non-refundable cattle checkoff. This deal took months of valuable time and energy over an issue that seemed to most as resolvable with some common sense. It is for two years, which guarantees that more drawn-out discussion will again begin in a little over a year. There is a clear resolution to this, but don’t hold your breath waiting for any common-sense intervention from the Alberta government. It boggles the mind to think how much time has been spent on the checkoff issue over the past five years.

The beef industry’s domestic and international meat competitors must be chortling with delight watching the biggest player in the Canadian industry squander so much time and effort.

Yes, it’s been an interesting (or is it exasperating/aggravating?) year or so in the life of the cattle and beef industry.

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