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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Where’s the beef? There’s plenty on the hoof

UPDATED: Fri., May 8, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

While the retail price of beef has gone up, the price of cattle has dropped faster than a 401(k) during a pandemic. Price gouging or price fixing, either way, it’s the consumer who picks up the check.

The independent ranchers of the Cattle Producers of Washington feel like they’re being gouged. They raise the beef and take the risks while the packing houses drive down the price for their cattle. CPoW claims the packers manipulate the market by bringing in cheap foreign imports of boxed beef and selling it as if it’s American born and raised.

So when the Washington state attorney general’s office promoted the “See It, Snap It, Send It” campaign in April to fight price gouging during the COVID-19 emergency, CPoW submitted a consumer protection complaint.

But it’s not price gouging. The guy in Royal City who broke open packages of toilet paper and sold individual rolls for $2.49 was a price gouger, taking advantage of individuals. The cattle producers’ complaint asserts price fixing on an industrywide scale.

“Technically, we closed it as a consumer complaint, but we route all complaints to the right office,” according to Brionna Aho, communications director for the attorney general.

The office does not comment on whether antirust investigations are underway. Such investigations can take several years to complete.

She confirmed Attorney General Bob Ferguson is reviewing the letter recently sent to the Justice Department by 11 Midwest attorneys general also alleging price fixing and market manipulation by the beef packers.

George Wishon, a young cattle rancher from Stevens County, is a CPoW member and the R-CALF USA Region 1 director for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. He pointed to the supply chain, a concept becoming all too familiar. R-CALF is an association of cattle ranchers.

COVID-19 has contributed to slowdowns at processing plants, but while there is a low supply of specific cuts in some markets, according to industry sources, there’s no shortage of beef.

Unlike the vertically integrated assembly line production of pork and chicken, U.S. beef cattle are still raised primarily by independent family ranch operations. They have some ability to control the timing of when their cattle go to market, but putting on too much weight adds fat instead of muscle and degrades the quality of the meat.

Some ranchers who are ready to sell haven’t been able to get a bid for three or four weeks.

Domestic cattle producers are ready and able to supply the U.S.

What they can’t do is compete with cheap boxed beef brought in from countries like Brazil and Namibia, unpacked and relabeled with a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected sticker, and sold without country-of-origin labeling to tell consumers what they’re buying.

Wishon said he gets calls from producers throughout the Northwest telling him they’re on the financial edge.

“If it’s not straightened out soon, we could see a massive exodus out of the industry, and the only real reason is price gouging from the packers,” Wishon said.

People discomfited to discover our dependence on China for critical pharmaceuticals might want to consider the consequences of outsourcing our food supply.

It’s a deliberate effort by the beef packers to destabilize the cattle market and take control of the supply chain, aided by USDA, according to Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA CEO.

“USDA fundamentally believes we should be importing beef from whatever country produces beef the cheapest,” Bullard said.

Bullard sees it as a continuation of 25 years of globalist USDA policy favoring cheap food over national food security. It’s in direct conflict with Trump administration trade policies favoring reduced outsourcing of key industries, except “USDA never got the memo.”

The pandemic shutdown has made it easier for the packers to feed consumer fears. R-CALF USA is using increased consumer awareness of supply chain logistics to push a public petition supporting Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, or MCOOL, and the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption, or PRIME, Act.

According to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ spokesman, Jared Powell, the congresswoman is in the process of reviewing the PRIME Act.

In the short term, R-CALF USA has launched a website at www.usabeef.org as a platform to help consumers find local producers seeking a market. More than 370 independent farms and ranches from 41 states are listed, offering beef from cattle born, raised and harvested in the U.S.

“We’re just letting it run, hoping more and more people are finding it,” Bullard said.

More than 342,000 people have signed the MCOOL petition.

“That’s a lot of people who want to know where their meat comes from,” Bullard said.

And a lot of people who understand the consumer always pays the price, either in dollars or food security.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on May 8, 2020 to correct the number of people who have signed a public petition supporting Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling. The original version of this article gave an incorrect figure as a result of an editor’s error.

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