Monday, September 08, 2003

Frogs only give you frog legs

Recently I attended the Waterkeeper Alliance’s “Fear a Minute” conference. The Waterkeeper’s whole premise for existence is to improve the waterways of the country. But the theme of this annual rally seemed to be presenting any topic that might instill fear in the minds of consumers. Animal rights issues had plenty of time on the program, including three presenters from the UK. Now there is a prototype we should adopt when it comes to animal laws! You need to know that Patty Lovera, from the Public Citizen group, presented information about a deadly concept - making meat safer.

It reminded me of the whole bumper sticker approach to creating consumer anxiety. She identified the things that are happening in the food business and then made little statements poking fun of science in action. The one that sent my head spinning was her perception that “the implementation of HAACP is an industry excuse to limit inspectors.” So why is it that we have fewer and bigger packers? Concentration has increased sharply in recent years. The four largest packers handled 82% of the cattle harvest in 1994 compared to 72% in 1990 and only 36% in 1980. It seems that the cost of food safety compliance is forcing many smaller packers out of business. Food-borne illnesses are predominately a handling issue yet some seem to believe you can mandate consumers to wash their cutting boards or even their hands!

According to Ms. Lovera, “manure from cattle has e-coli.” She made it sound like some rare plague that you can only catch if you eat beef instead of an organism that is present in every human body. But there is the hidden anti-meat agenda slipping a little subliminal message in there.

In her criticism of the USDA, Lovera stated that “they have created so much of this irradiated beef that now we let them sell to it the school lunch program”. Her statement implied that since nobody else wants irradiated beef, we will dump it on the school children. Never once was irradiation considered an important means of ensuring food safety. If the procedure kills 99% of all bacteria, wouldn’t it be a good idea to provide the safest food to our children that technology will allow?

Lovera suggested that “the farm to fork” concept is one of the most dangerous strategies this industry has come up with. I find this statement fascinating because while she is busy poking holes at the concept, she is probably shopping at a farmers market. I guess it is fair to say that she may want to know the guy who raised her tomato but when it comes to meat, ignorance is her choice.

Her closing jab was that “irradiating beef is similar to painting a house when the foundation is crumbling.” I’m not sure what part of the beef industry is on such shaky ground because consumption is clearly on the rise. The U.S. is not only consuming more beef annually but more total meat protein than ever before.

While many in the meat industry ignore people like this wishing them away, I recognize all the people like her are a problem only if they are not held accountable. Whether it is the truth or not, when we hear something enough times, we begin to believe it. As consumers continue to be bombarded by messages like these, they will lose trust in the safety of their food supply and those who produce it.

Consequently, I challenge everyone in this industry to confront the Patty Loveras of the world as you hear them manufacturing and propagating these tales. If you don’t believe that their lies uncontested will become “truth” just remember that, contrary to what you heard when you were a kid, you don’t get warts from a frog!

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