Legend has it that on Oct. 8, 1871, Catherine O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lantern. What followed was the Great Chicago Fire.
Another firestorm involving a cow occurred immediately prior to the recent Christmas holiday when a Holstein belonging to veterinarian Bill Wavrin's Sunny Dene Ranch 4,000-head herd in Mabton, Wash., was found to have been suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease.
Fueled by a suddenly aroused media, speculation centered around whether the nation's meat supply had been compromised; where the cow had originated (soon reported as Alberta, Canada) and what it had been fed in its lifetime.
An excellent compendium of the news relative to what South Dakota state veterinarian Sam Holland recently referred to at the ninth annual Midwest Farm Policy Forum as "the cow that stole Christmas," can be found at www.tricityherald.com/tch/madcow/.
Nearly lost, however, in the media aftermath of this latest mad cow conflagration were three important points.
First, the damning indictment of globalization. You have one cow on one farm tucked away in Washington state that is discovered to have BSE and suddenly you have complete chaos in the world's beef industry.
Second, if dairy farmers were getting a fair price for what they produce they probably wouldn't feel it necessary to squeeze every last penny out of their herd, such as sending "downers" off to the marketplace. But when they have so much invested in one cow and are not getting what they deserve in terms of price, they feel they have little choice.
Dairy farmers in Washington State received about $1 to $1.10 per gallon (if not the lowest in the nation, it's near). It costs an estimated $1.40 to produce a gallon of milk. It is also estimated that dairy farmers in the state continue to carry about $1,500 to $2,000 of debt per cow.
Yet a recent study by Washington Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) showed that consumers in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area paid an average price of $3.52 per gallon for whole milk in July 2003, the highest in the nation, compared to the national average of $2.78.
During the past 20 years the state has seen its number of dairy farms decrease from 1,600 to 600. The August 2003 Washington PIRG report shows that between January 2002 and April 2003 alone the number fell from 628 to 603.
Milk processors play a murky role in establishing milk prices. Deborah Robinson, who researched and wrote the WashPIRG report, noted that while the farm price set by the government is public information and retail prices can be observed by any shopper the prices that processors charge to stores need not be publicly revealed.
In Washington state some grocery chains, notably Safeway, have their own milk-processing plants, presumably giving them greater control over costs and retail prices. But as the leading chains in the food retailing business grow ever larger the struggling dairy farmers are being left to sell to an ever diminishing market.
So the challenge for dairy producers as with most family farm operations really comes down (once again!) to obtaining a fair price for what they produce. After chairing a series of eight nationwide farm policy forums on agriculture in 1984, former Texas agricultural commissioner and chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Agricultural Council Jim Hightower concluded in his final report:
"When all was said and done, it came down to one word: Price. Other important issues were discussed at the forums sponsored by the DNCAC during the past six months, but the overwhelming consensus among participating farmers was that the other concerns -- overproduction, soil and water conservation, high interest rates, lack of credit, entry by young farmers, the depressed farm service industry, and the farm program's high cost, to name a few -- could and would be solved when farmers received a fair price for their products."
Third. the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in conjunction with the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) have been careless, if not negligent, in both ignoring the threat of BSE and in not establishing a process whereby it can be readily detected before it moves into the food supply.
For example, in January 2002 the General Accounting Office -- Congress' investigative arm -- slammed the FDA for failing to adequately enforce feed ban regulations, a key piece of the nation's protection against the disease.
The day after the Washington mad cow news became public, the FDA tried to reassure the public by saying it has "vigorously enforced" a 1997 law that bans the use of meat and bone meal from dead ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) in feed for live ruminants. The agency said more than 99% of feed operators are now complying with the law.
The GAO, however, said the agency had failed to issue warning letters to violators and inspection records were incomplete, inconsistent, inaccurate and untimely. The FDA's records, investigators said, were "so severely flawed" that they shouldn't be used to assess compliance. "FDA has not placed a priority on oversight of the feed ban," the report concluded.
Likewise, Amy Merrick reported in the Wall Street Journal that when the first news of the Sunny Dene cow was heard by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, it set in motion "the most rehearsed plan in the history" of the NCBA.
Merrick quotes Steven Grover, the National Restaurant Association vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs, as pointing out "the discovery of the Washington state cow also triggered long-rehearsed plans at other organizations like the US Department of Agriculture and McDonald's Corp. and the Association which has been working since 1990 to prepare for this day."
Speaking to 144 reporters and other participants following the USDA's initial briefing, Terry Stokes, the NCBA's chief executive, and his colleagues "delivered messages they had written long ago: The US beef supply is the safest in the world. Consumers shouldn't be afraid to eat meat because the infected material from the cow wouldn't enter the food supply. The discovery of this case actually shows that the government surveillance system works."
At the same time the San Francisco Chronicle's Sabin Russell and Nanette Asimov were reporting that "meat from a Washington state slaughterhouse that contained cuts from a lone cow that tested positive for mad cow disease was sold in as many as nine California counties, but current rules forbid the state or counties from telling consumers exactly where recalled meat was sold." All this was taking place while the USDA was insisting that the recall was precautionary and that the meat posed no health risk.
According to USDA spokesman Matthew Baun, it's up to consumers to check with their grocers, butchers or restaurants to find out if any of the recalled meat may have landed on their tables. "We are prohibited from releasing information that companies would consider proprietary,'' he explained. "If you are concerned whether you may have purchased the product, you can call your retail store. They would know ... The only way to know for sure is to contact stores."
Meanwhile, it is ironic that this whole incident is currently taking place against the backdrop of the USDA and the meat industry's concerted effort to eliminate funding designed to implement the provisions of the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation which was passed by the Congress -- legislation specially designed to bring a higher level of safety to the increasing amount of meat that is being imported into the US.
As St. Francis, Kan., cattleman Mike Callicrate told the Village Voice's James Ridgeway, "Adequate inspection on the border has been lacking for years especially on the topic of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service."
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/