What?s the Beef?

Posted: Sep 10, 2004 12:00 AM
Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair shocked the world with ?The Jungle,? an unsettling depiction of conditions at a Chicago meatpacking plant. Americans were sickened when they learned how their food was being processed. Almost immediately, national outrage drove the federal government to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which gave it the power to regulate the food supply.

However, those federal regulations should be considered a floor, not a ceiling. We need minimum standards, but any company should be free to exceed those standards if it wants to. Ironically, though, today it?s the U.S. Department of Agriculture that seems to be preventing a private company from improving the quality of our food.

That?s where Creekstone Farms comes in. The Kansas-based company raises premium-quality Black Angus beef. It?s one of only a few producers certified by the USDA?s Agricultural Marketing Service. That means USDA graders at Creekstone?s plant examine each animal to assure that it meets strict quality standards.

Until December, Creekstone?s business was growing, both here at home and especially internationally, where it sold about 20 percent of its meat. Then, a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- mad cow disease -- was found in the state of Washington.

Mad cow doesn?t seem to have made much of a dent in domestic beef consumption. However, more than 50 countries quickly closed their markets to all American beef. One is Japan, which had been the largest foreign consumer of U.S. beef. The Japanese insist they will not reopen their markets until we can certify that 100 percent of our meat is free of mad cow.

Creekstone has a plan to do just that, but it?ll be expensive -- it might cost as much as $20 per steer, or about six cents per pound of meat. However, the company notes that its customers are willing to pay the bill. The problem is that the USDA won?t allow the use of mad cow test kits by a private company like Creekstone. That?s because the department wants to control the testing process.

The Department of Agriculture has its own plan. It intends to test more than 200,000 cows over the next year. That will cost taxpayers $70 million, which means we?ll be paying far more to test far fewer cattle than the private testing would cost. But the agency insists it will target the animals most likely to carry the disease and should be able to detect mad cow if the disease is present in our meat supply.

The USDA has sound science on its side. For example, it will test only cattle older than 30 months, since BSE doesn?t seem to develop before that age. Besides, the department notes, scientists say 100 percent testing isn?t necessary.

Creekstone admits as much. A company vice president says their cattle are younger than 30 months. But it wants to test them anyway, if only to reassure nervous beef buyers abroad. In short, it would be good marketing.

And marketing is a key part of a competitive system. Partly because of marketing, people are willing to pay more for a Cadillac Seville than a Chrysler Sebring, even though either car will get them where they?re going.

Creekstone has customers who are willing to pay more for tested cattle. The company ought to be able to meet that demand, as long as it makes clear that it, Creekstone (not the USDA), is certifying the results.

Americans owe Sinclair a measure of gratitude, even though he considered his book a failure. The muckraker?s goal had been to launch a socialist revolution. As he later lamented, ?I aimed at the public?s heart and by accident hit its stomach.?

But Creekstone Farms and others are aiming at our heads -- with marketing campaigns. They too may miss, especially if enough people aren?t willing to pay far more to finance their expensive and possibly unnecessary tests. But in a free-market economy, shouldn?t they be allowed to try?