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Friday, June 26, 2009

Just Don't Recall the Chicken and the Fish

Okay I can't believe I am blogging about cows. Seriously. But I'm going to do it anyway.

While I grew up in a rural area and have flung a cow pie or two in my life I thought I had left that part of my life behind. I want to go on record here as never once tipping any cow. Well before I drop all that baggage on the sidewalk of life I did do some research in the late 90's on mad cow disease and drove back and forth to the Midwest passing the melodic stench of the feedlots. Okay, well, there was rBGH too come to think about it. And the time I did the community cows shot for a marketing campaign. The cow tried to eat my hair. How can someone just forget that experience.

Gosh I should probably just get this over with. Tip-toe through the cow-pucky so to speak. Wait, wait, I do have one more memory--I also dehorned a cow my sophomore year at the high school ag farm. Part of a well-rounded educational program.

What triggered this memory lane trip you ask? This morning, on my news rounds, I read about the ground beef recall
at the JBS USA beef-packing plant in Greeley.* I also read that the public relations team for the local plant is saying something to the tune of "It has already been done, did, been et." Basically the public relation person doesn't seem to know why the recall took so long to announce but notes that these issues come up regularly at this time of year.

To be honest I remember other recalls in the past. But all I remember is that they happened in Greeley. The meat brand names don't stick. I am not certain shoppers have a lot of branding loyalty when it comes to meat. Perhaps they should. It might improve things for everyone concerned. Including the branding of the City of Greeley. Then again maybe we can become known as Greeley--Home of the Pathogen that Ate the Public. There's a screen play in there somewhere I'm sure. Maybe a reality show.

I digress. Have I mentioned my morbid sense of humor? New to town I am wondering if I should interpret that company spokesmodel statement to mean we all should just "Get over it." "There's no damages so you can't blame us, fine us, or cause us too much grief." or "Oh well, maybe next time we will announce it as soon as we know something's up--if you're lucky."

I've done public relations. I know the game. Especially considering JBS is worldwide. They know the game as well. But somewhere there has to be some ethics and accountability in the case of public health. We are what we eat. I have no desire to be a walking diseased microbe. Then again I'd like to see my Uncle actually make money selling his beef cattle again.

Ethics are standards in a company that come above the letter of the law. Supposedly. Although sometimes pretty words are made without any serious intent to create the actions behind those words. I don't work at the plant so I can't comment on the actions other than the obvious failure in contrast to this JBS statement from their corporate website

JBS’s Fresh Approach To Beef Safety.

Like everything we do at JBS, we’re taking a fresh and proactive approach to beef safety. We do it by focusing on preventing contamination rather than reacting to it. By optimizing the use of interventions and critical control points with repeated, aggressive attacks on microorganisms throughout the entire production process, JBS’s beef safety is second to none.

JBS’s Multiple Hurdle Intervention Program is a comprehensive six-step carcass pasteurization process developed to fight pathogens including E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter. JBS is at the forefront of the industry in preventing and detecting food-borne pathogens through improved scientific knowledge, technology and testing procedures.

Not that I am cynical here or anything. I am not used to living in a town with a meat bleeding, grinding, packing plant. But I did work in a chemistry lab once. Yes, for pay. I know how to pipette like a mad woman and I know how deadly and daring pathogens can be especially in the face of a local government that thus far I have discovered tends to be very protective about these lower wage grimy corporate labor jobs .

I also discussed with my Uncle switching to raising organic beef ten years ago--both for profit and for the community tribe's health. At ninety-three he was still running three-hundred and fifty cows almost single-handed and complained about mega corporate control over the auction process. I gave him thoughts on breaking that control. He gave me thoughts on my "frumpy hippie-chick with too much education" ideas. I still love him anyway. Hardest working man I've ever met.

But maybe he is right. About the frumpy hippie-chick part. I just don't put a lot of stock into large unwieldy food production systems. I think it should be local and sustainable whenever possible. Call me a radical. I think local government needs to invest more in local sustainability and locally owned small businesses. The big guns can fend for themselves. They get more capital every time I have to go into the local stores and do not have any options but to buy their products.

So the question that came to my mind this morning, all right I am getting there, is what consequences to the JBS company can there be when the source of the contamination isn't a household branded name. Meaning JBS doesn't lick it and stick it on the meat packages. At least, I don't recognize JBS, as a consumer. Neither do my local tour guides.

Does a meat slaughterhouse even worry about consumer branding? I would think the packaging plant is in the supply chain for other meat retailers. Otherwise known as a "middleman". For example DOLE took a big hit on the bad spinach gig a while ago--deservedly or not. The tainted spinach was sourced to its production but DOLE took the brunt of that recall. But in the case of JBS, here we have, or at least I think we have, a nonspecific wholesale label that produces the hamburger good and then packages it and distributes it under several brand names. Swift carried a lot of the primary relationships with wholesalers and was taken over by JBS (which was the largest beef processor in South America before the buy-out) if my zoom through their corporate press release history is correct. The holding company is S & C Holdco 3 Inc.

In other words JBS is a slaughter house with little direct end consumer accountability and is third in an industry that looks like an oligopoly. Tyson Foods is a competitor. (If I have the process incorrect I am sure a good public relations person worth those big bucks will be sending me an email soon). Hence the image hit on the JBS corporate family, with the faulty processing, probably isn't going to be long term. You and I really don't have an option to just stop buying their products when we shop to send them a message where it hurts--the wallet. Instead there is a kind of trickle down effect that their wholesale customers give if people lose faith in the quality of the meat they are buying. The impact of shoddy practices, if that is the case, is lessened and removed from each incident. Read this as "fewer long term losses to the JBS company and less money spent on image repair".

So this is why their PR types
can be a bit more cheeky and a whole lot less apologetic. The public isn't listening real closely until someone dies and it hits CNN.

I decided to hunt up some obligatory facts. Then I stumbled on the following commentary on the USDA's page (not that I am a big fan of the USDA but they do put out a lot of miscellaneous reports that are seemingly unconnected internally but can be puzzled out if someone is desperate enough and a regular insomniac like me. Or simply isn't a stampede fan and has beef on the brain).

ERS/USDA Briefing Room - Food Safety: Labeling and Traceability
How can there be a market for safe food when safety cannot be observed? Food that is contaminated with disease-causing pathogens may look, smell, and taste like food that is free of pathogens.

* If consumers cannot observe differences until it is too late, will food suppliers have any incentive to produce safer foods? Will manufacturers and suppliers be compensated for their time and costs involved in producing safer foods?
So I guess I am not the only one wondering just what it will take to instill better practices in the mass production markets. And the second question behind the * makes me even more nervous. After all what incentive do the mega-processors have in producing safer foods if they don't face strong enough direct public consequences. We have to rely on the wholesale accounts to pressure for changes? Oh yeah like that is going to happen. I doubt the wholesale accounts have many alternatives like, say for example, importing Argentina beef in the vast quantities needed. There are many reasons that won't happen--not the least Americans in Beef Central probably aren't going to opt for foreign beef regardless of quality or price protections. And, in my view, I am pretty sure foreign beef has less 'trackability' in their controls and restrictions on it. At least in nonindustrialized countries.

Ah yes, we are back to that all American beautiful concept of being too big to fail. How aware, lately, we consumers have become of this concept. But do we understand just how deeply entrenched the problem is in market place other than the obvious financial arena.

Therein lies a second rub. Government regulation or lack thereof.

Following the trend of thought on the USDA site, these government types seem to think that the idea of traceability helps to counter this growing concern to our food supply. They suggest that by ensuring that the meat can be tracked back to the contamination point that increased penalties on the food processors might do the trick. At the same time the USDA questions if Americans will be willing to pay for increased food security.

Well I think we all know how that goes when the big guns have fingers buried deep in political pockets.
JBS reported sales of $6,231,100,000 last year and has 21,200 employees (Dun and Bradstreet 2009). That buys a lot of political power. Consumers don't have that kind of power unless they act collectively. Essentially the slap on the rump turns into a thump on the fingers with a promise that things will get better and just a few dollars in fines to make it look good.

It seems to me that either way this road goes the cost to the consumer is going to go up. Fines and penalties and increased insurance premiums are going to raise operational costs leading to increased prices at the supermarket just the same as better practices will increase operational costs and raise the end price. Wouldn't it be better, even logical, if the USDA just enforced better safety practices?

That sounds like a good plan to me.

Do I have a better idea. Well. At first I was thinking that if the food processor had to put their brand prominently on the consumer end packaging maybe that would help. A company afraid of losing
market share can find more ethics out in the pasture really quick when their name is in front of the consumer's face. But then I realized that consumers have short term memory deficits when it comes to actually reading labels anyhow and the wholesalers aren't going to switch accounts unless they have a viable alternative. This industry has been consolidating for the last couple of decades. Alternatives don't grow on trees. Plus I would think the packing plant has an insurer paying their actual losses. The premiums will rise making the insurance companies much happier and consequentially controlling the actual cash flow/capital loss to the packaging plant.

Arrgh. So much for accountability in the food chain supply. Maybe I should have turned this blog piece into a chant on why each community needs to concentrate on building sustainable food and water systems. Is it too late? Farmer's markets anyone? Farmer's markets with organic beef for sale? Double aargh. Enough cow chat.

So, um. Well. Um. No, not really... to answer my own question. I don't have any reasonable solutions for this topic. Other than eating fish and chicken until the cows come home. And I haven't been impressed with the fish selection locally. I'm in the middle of the country though so I won't go into that rant. However the upside exists for some segments. When the chicken processors get in trouble again and the fish are depleted I guess the soybean farmers will rise in influence.

Anyone else out there have one? A solution, not a beef.

*JBS acquired Swift in 2007.

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