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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- YAPPERS!

by: Wes Ishmael

A good watch dog always lets you know when something's amiss, be it a predator headed for the chicken house or Uncle Willy coming in from town too late. Even dependable watchdogs aren't always right, though. The snap of an inconsequential twig here or the whiff of something new there can elicit a needless warning. But a really good watch dog, they'll discover their mistake and shut up.

Now, yappers are a different breed of cat. Turmoil, tumult and agitation are their game. Get ‘em started, even when it's obvious they're chasing shadows and they'll yammer on and on and on and…

As it turns out, the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) is a yapper. This is the organization behind a flurry of wasted motion and beef industry dollars that started better than two years ago when they started demanding a vote for a new beef referendum that makes the beef checkoff possible. According to them, a new referendum was needed because of growing producer dissatisfaction with the program. That even though periodic independent producer surveys funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board (CBB)—which administers the checkoff program—indicated then and now that about 70 percent of beef producers either support or strongly support the program.

So LMA threatened a petition drive that by law would mandate a new referendum asking producers whether or not they wanted to keep the checkoff. Never mind the fact that the CBB offered up a compromise to LMA in February of 1999 that would have called for a mandatory vote on the referendum if producer support ever dropped below 50 percent. Nope, the petition drive, all of the mud slinging and all of the check-off dollars in the name of educational defense had to be spent.

As the story unfolded, LMA was given 12 months to come up with signatures from 10 percent of the nation's beef producers, the trigger level outlined in the legislation enabling the checkoff. In round numbers USDA pegged the pool of beef producers at about 1.2 million, so LMA needed to come up with 107,883 signatures.

Support for the petition was so strong that before the 12-month deadline came due, LMA was already asking USDA for a six-month extension to collect signatures. At the time, LMA said 85,000 producers had already signed petitions in support of a new referendum. Hatch Smith, LMA president at the time, explained in a news release: “This is a huge outpouring of support. It is twice the number of producers who are members of the largest beef producer organization, which is the principal contractor of check-off dollars. I can also report that interest and support is accelerating as producers who have already signed the petition contact their friends and neighbors to do likewise.”

Let's examine that accelerated support 18 months after the fact. LMA collected 127,927 signatures and began beating their chest. Yap, yap, yap.

Apparently LMA took the remedial math class taught by former vice-president Al Gore (himself a notable yapper). When USDA released the preliminary results of their signature verification process in January, lo and behold, of those 127,927 signatures that it took 18 months and one extension to collect, no more than 83,464 of them were valid. Remember, LMA supposedly already had 85,000 signed up in April of 1999. So, this massive industry support for a new referendum claimed by LMA turned out to be no more than eight percent of beef producers. As for that preliminary status? If anything, the number of qualifying signatures is likely to decrease according to folks close to the verification process.

Of course none of this should be much surprise. Keep in mind, those periodic surveys that continue to indicate checkoff support from a lion's share of producers. According to Les McNeill, CBB chairman, “Regular independent surveys show that there is significant support for our efforts. The last survey, conducted in the summer of 2000 indicated that 69 percent of producers either support or strongly support the beef checkoff.”

Worse yet, in this tunnel vision debacle is the fact that somewhere along the way, either out of intent or ignorance, LMA felt comfortable passing along the signatures of folks who aren't even beef producers. Seems like there ought to be a law against that.

The shame of it all is three-fold. First, what a waste of precious industry resources when the facts defined by quantified producer support consistently indicated there was only mass minority interest in voting to keep a program the majority already supported.

Secondly, members of LMA are pillars of economic strength within the communities that they serve. They have the respect of the producers they serve. And, they continue to play a necessary role not only in the checkoff itself—collecting the dollar per head that flows through their marketing facilities—but also in the industry itself. Say what you want about value-based marketing, the cash market established by LMA members and their customers continues to serve the industry in spades. What a shame to tarnish that image of stability by chasing down a rat hole.

Incidentally, a fair-minded reader might take exception to the fact that LMA is not quoted in this article, nor were they contacted. The reason is simple. When the author has asked for and received response about this issue in the past, many of the comments fade into fiction based upon subsequent reality. In other words, why throw a saddle on the back of a horse that has already proven will leave you standing?

Finally, and most important, the shame of all this is a simple fact most of us first learned in the Good Book: A house divided against itself cannot stand. The number of beef producers continues to dwindle in this nation. We can't afford to throw stones at one another when there are so many battles being waged against our collective house, everything from environmental and animal welfare activists to capricious global economics that add volatility to the market.

Pulling the Load

Instead, the beef checkoff serves as a glowing example of what can be accomplished when a group of people with mutual interests works together in the name of mutual benefit.

For instance, checkoff dollars last year continued to contribute to the growth of prepared beef items—50 new items from 31 food manufacturers—that offer consumers increased consistency and convenience. Many of these products, everything from precooked Ground Beef Crumbles to a Boneless Beef Filet are also adding value to products from the Chuck and Round, which have previously been less valuable. Since the beef checkoff funded and launched its first advertising about convenient beef in 1999 sales of prepared beef items have increased from about $651,000 per week nationwide to $1.5 million per week in September of 2000, according to the CBB.

Moreover, with the help of beef checkoff dollars, convenient and nutritious heat-and-eat beef entrees, unheard of just three years ago, can be found in 61 percent of this nation's supermarkets today. As a category, CBB reports that consumer expenditures for prepared beef entrees have rocketed from $70 million in 1998 to $117 million today.

All told, consumer expenditures for beef is expected to top $53 billion when all the bead pushing is done for 2000. That's $3 billion more than 1999 and the most money consumers have ever spent on beef in history.

These dollars are icing on top of the cake that is called true increased beef demand. Specifically, by November preliminary figures showed that beef demand had increased 6.17 percent during the third quarter compared to the same quarter in 1999. “These statistics are further evidence that our beef checkoff programs are on the right track,” says McNeill.

Bottom line, consumers are getting the message and believing it. As an example, each year check-off dollars are spent on science-based education and public relations efforts that reach the masses. The Fight Bac!™ program alone, developed and distributed by the Partnership for Food Safety Education and supported with checkoff dollars, reached more than 300,000 students last year, educating them about safe food handling practices. And, 850 Wal-Mart Superstores hosted a Fight Bac!™ Day to promote national food safety education.

Perhaps underscoring the merits of such education programs is the fact that CBB says research indicates consumer confidence in the safety of ground beef increased eight percent from 1998 to 2000.

Plus, checkoff dollars helped more than 105,000 teachers and three million kids learn about beef nutrition, food safety and the positive way cattle producers take care of the natural resources in their stewardship.

In sum, checkoff dollars last year meant that 57 million women who make the primary food purchasing decisions in their homes received accurate messages about beef nutrition and convenience at least 23 times

Keep in mind this is a short list of industry activities that contribute to the nation's understanding of the beef industry, the value of beef products and the very opportunity to continue being part of the beef business in the future. These are activities that no individual producer or state organization can accomplish as effectively as producers banding together via the checkoff.

So, What's the Problem?

Yet, at press time, within two weeks of USDA's preliminary report concerning signature verification, LMA filed suit against USDA and CBB challenging the verification process and calling for a referendum. Yap, yap, yap.

Along the way LMA requested and received a temporary injunction that impacts some of CBB's ongoing producer communication activities. Yap, yap.

Citing increased beef demand, expected to be about 3.5 percent this year on top of about 3.5 percent last year, Monte Reese, CBB Chief Operating Officer says, “I just hope we can keep our eye on the game and not the commotion going on in the stands.”

Indeed. It's time for LMA to quit their yapping and either get back into the hunt or go home.

(Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CATTLE TODAY.)

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