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Texas Agriculture Archive

February 20, 2004

'Mad Cow'—We were ready!


By Kenneth Dierschke

President, Texas Farm Bureau

When one lone Holstein downer cow in Washington state was routinely tested for BSE in December, no one expected much to happen. Cattle producers were enjoying some of the best prices. Such tests are automatic—all across the country—every week of the year.

So, on December 23, when word came back on that Holstein —presumed positive for BSE—it was quite a shock. As Under Secretary of Agriculture Bill Hawks recently said, "It was the cow who stole Christmas!" The event we had dreaded for so long was finally here.

For cattle producers, in fact for all of agriculture, it was a scary and troubling time. Prices went into a free fall. Consumers, content to ignore BSE for a long time, suddenly were hearing about "MAD COW" on every TV news program. "MAD COW" screamed from the headlines of every newspaper.

It is for situations like this that we have a Farm Bureau.

The coalitions and relationships that we'd worked very hard to develop were the first tools brought to bear in the mushrooming BSE crisis. By December 24, Texas news organizations had the Farm Bureau statement and those of other beef groups. The reporting was tough, but fair. There was no hysteria among consumers—because they had information from the people they trust the most—agricultural producers.

Our message was simple, direct and truthful. The BSE outbreak was a lump of coal in the Beef industry's Christmas stocking—no doubt about that. Hidden in there with the bad news, however, was an opportunity to deliver a key message about the safety of U.S. beef. We did not waste it.

First of all, we found this one case of BSE because we had in place the safety features to be looking for it. Working with other beef and food safety groups, Farm Bureau played a role in developing tough rules to prevent BSE and to contain it when it was inevitably found.

Farm Bureau was instrumental in quickly spreading the word on the situation in Washington State.

Farm Bureau backed new and tougher standards for meat processing when USDA issued them.

We have learned the hard way in matters of public policy that emotion is the enemy. The animal rights groups tried to use it once again along with misinformation and outright falsehoods. The public didn't buy it.

Beef prices have stabilized. They may not rise again to the record highs of early December, but there could be very decent prices once the export markets are opened again.

The BSE/Mad Cow situation was one of our worst fears. However, because of the system we have in place, because of the precautions we've taken, we've been able to minimize the damage, while maintaining consumer confidence. It was—and is—bad enough, but it would have been much worse if we had not prepared for it through our organizational efforts. Farm Bureau and other beef industry groups worked jointly and effectively at a very critical time.