The Peoria Journal Star (Illinois) - - - Tuesday - - - March 28, 2006
Rancher: Producers must unite -- Expert says cattle industry unfairly represented, managed
STREATOR - America's cattle producers have reason to beef about the way their industry is managed.
That message was hammered home by Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, before a gathering of 40 area farmers and ranchers at the Town and Country Inn in Streator on Saturday night.
"Producers are not being adequately represented by Congress or by any other trade organization," said Bullard, who also spoke at Black Hawk East College in Kewanee earlier that day.
Meatpackers and retailers have profited from strong beef sales more than producers, Bullard said.
Producers were outflanked by other sectors of the meat industry in the 1990s, he said. Packers went after cattle in Canada and Mexico to develop "one seamless North American herd."
Efforts to lower U.S. health and safety standards followed as a result, said Bullard. "(The meat industry) doesn't want the United States to have higher standards than other nations that might endanger supplies," he said.
That explains the opposition to country-of-origin labeling by some in the meat industry, said Bullard, noting that packers have also benefited from the concept of captive supply.
Long an issue in the meat industry, "captive supply" - defined as livestock owned or fed by packers prior to slaughter - has become more critical in light of consolidation that's occurred in the packing industry, he said. Four major companies now hold 80 percent of the business - Tyson, Swift, Cargill and National Beef Packing.
By using captive supplies, packers have avoided having to bid for beef prices on an open market, hurting the 775,000 U.S. cattle producers, said Bullard.
"These are the conditions that formed R-CALF," he said, noting that the organization, begun in 1998, has since grown to 18,000 members, rivaling the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the long-standing rancher-producer organization, with 25,000 members.
Bullard said it finally took an "extraordinary event" to come to the aid of the nation's producers. "When bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease) was detected in Canada in 2003, things changed," he said, referring to the closing of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle.
"When packers couldn't reach their captive cattle in Canada, control slipped through their fingers," said Bullard, noting beef prices rose for producers following the border closing.
"The (meat) industry will tell you that the border closure had no impact on your business," he said. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture's own panel of scientists called for the border to remain closed until further testing measures were in place, industry voices like the NCBA called for the border to be reopened, said Bullard.
Beef producers must stand together or "prices will revert back to what they were before 2003," he said. A new record for imported beef is likely in 2006, predicted Bullard.
Chris Earl, vice president of Sunny Valley Farm in Yorkville, asked about R-CALF efforts to build public approval for country-of-origin labeling.
"If our members vote for us to pursue it, we will," said Bullard, adding that such labeling could be "adopted tomorrow at no cost to U.S. taxpayers."
"Right now cattle from Mexico and Canada is marked. Any cow not marked can be recognized as being raised in the United States," he said.
Bullard said despite conflicts of the past, U.S. beef producers have reason for optimism. "The winds are changing in Washington. There's understanding that trade agreements must not only be free but fair," he said.
Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or email@example.com.
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