By Austin Snedden
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
We have all heard references that you can judge a person by their friends or whom they associate with, but a lot of our associations get increasingly more complicated than just the people we like to hang out with. In business, religion, clubs, and nationality, we might be associated for a single, common cause or reason but have vastly different beliefs and practices outside of that single thing that brings us together. Sometimes the people or events that folks tend to associate us with are not our choosing. A minority of bad actors in a group can ruin the reputation of an otherwise good association—whether it be corruption in business, abuse in religion, or manipulation in a club. At first, whistleblowers are discouraged from making a stink to protect the reputation of the association; they are told the good of the association outweighs the abuses they have witnessed or experienced. In many cases, the bad actors are emboldened and empowered by potential whistleblowers remaining silent—often to the detriment of the entire association. Our obligation is often clear when it comes to the integrity of our own behavior, but when it comes to being a whistleblower, our obligation to do what is right is not always as clear. The bad players always want to cloak themselves with the good reputation of the group.
In the U.S. cattle industry, there are many formal associations, but we are often associated as a group due to the overall small number of us in the business. Although the largest agricultural sector in the nation, cattle producers only make up 0.3% of the nation’s population. Clearly, cattle producers have an association because of the product they produce, but many are associated through a common cause of perseverance and economic feasibility to sustain long time family businesses. U.S. cattle ranchers raise the safest and best quality beef in the world, our commitment to quality and integrity has earned us a trusted reputation in general. Vertical integration, which has wiped out many independent swine and poultry farmers, has reared its head in the beef industry. There were whistleblowers in 1998 when the largest producer group was absorbed by the meat packers; we are united in the product we produce, often separated by our goals, segments of production, and where we source our production. These whistleblowers were hushed because it was for the good of the association. When imports began to be approved from countries with different customs of production, the concerned whistleblowers were hushed again. It was for the good of the group and we didn’t want to raise concerns to the consumer that might affect demand. When the multi-national meat packing cattle group pushed for the elimination of country of origin labels, whistleblowers were shushed. When USDA allowed foreign beef to be labeled “product of USA” whistleblowers were shushed.
Domestic beef demand has been healthy over the last several years, built on the quality product and good reputation that U.S. cattle producers have established. Several instances over the last couple years show corporate meat packers cashing in on the reputation built by the American cattle rancher, including passing foreign beef off as product of USA under the current USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service rules. This is not to our benefit, but does it warrant a whistleblower? While we pondered that question, the USDA reopened our market to imports from Brazil, the home of the world’s largest meat packer (JBS) that also has significant U.S. market share. More imports into an already depressed cattle market alone may not be reason to fire up the whistle, but imports from a country infected with Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) might be. FMD is an infectious virus present in the Brazilian cow herd; this disease can be transmitted in imported meat. Though almost never infectious to humans, the unnecessary introduction of FMD into the U.S. cow herd would cause untold economic damage. Might be time for the whistleblower.
40-year politician, and current Secretary of the USDA, Sonny Perdue, has been on the right side of some issues while at the helm, allowing beef imports from Brazil is not one of them. Brazil has a history of being a bad actor. In May 2017, A USDA audit shows blood clots, bone chips and abscesses in imported beef from Brazil. In March 2018, Brazilian meat inspectors caught accepting bribes to allow expired meats to be sold and sanitary permits falsified. In September 2017, brothers Wesley and Joesley Batista, owners of Brazilian based meat packing company JBS, were arrested for graft, and the bribery of 1800 public officials. We don’t know if any U.S. officials are sitting on a fatter wallet after this decision to allow Brazilian imports.
Before the underbelly gets too big or too seedy, I think it is time to blow the whistle. Global beef supporters will try to hush, but it is too important. Although I have nothing against corporations, my loyalty is not to global beef; my loyalty is to the U.S. cattle rancher and the U.S. consumer. Thankfully it is not too late. Ask your U.S. Congressman and Senator to re-implement Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for beef. The world’s safest and best beef is on the shelves. Let your retailer know you want it—ask for beef born, raised, and harvested in the USA. It’s time to deny the bad actors from profiting by cloaking themselves in the good reputation U.S. cattle producers have built.