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With BSE threat, time for unity

That newscast was followed by a syndicated talk show, in which the host criticized Veneman for assuring Americans that the case was not terrorist related. It was obvious that the commentator wasn't familiar with the dynamics of the disease. He all but called Veneman a liar for issuing such an assurance so closely on the heels of the discovery announcement.

Within 15 minutes or so of this host's (Chicken Little) rant, a couple of cattle producers, one from South Dakota and the other from Nebraska, called in to point out that Veneman's statements were justified. The callers said that, given what was known about BSE and its etiology, it was a highly unlikely root for a bioterriosm attack. The two callers assured the radio audience that Americans have little to worry about regarding BSE from either a food safety or bioterrorism standpoint.

A confirmation of BSE in the Washington animal won't be known for a few days, but the U.S. beef industry learned what's in store. Within hours of the announcement, Japan implemented a temporary ban on U.S. beef imports into the country. By Wednesday morning, South Korea, Mexico, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Taiwan followed with temporary bans as well. That same morning, publicly traded beef-related stocks were losing ground across the board.

The two well-informed producers who called into the talk show likely won't have any effect on the world trade aspects of this BSE case. But they played a valuable role in helping to salve the anxieties of fellow listeners. And they illustrated the role that good, accurate information, credibly delivered, will play in the coming days and weeks.

On the national level, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association was front and center in providing information and spokespeople to the networks. And, early network coverage had been fairly balanced and reassuring to consumers, on the whole.

It is in crisis times such as these that the work of such multi-issue member organizations such as NCBA is most visible. But rest assured that NCBA and others like it have been on the job all along.

It was NCBA's leadership and cooperation with USDA and other groups and government agencies that helped diffuse U.S. consumer reaction to Canada's BSE announcement in May 2003. In fact, surveys at the time showed confidence among U.S. beef consumers actually grew.

The yet-unconfirmed case of BSE in the United States also points out the wisdom of NCBA's push for a science-based response to BSE outbreaks in foreign countries. While some quarters were calling for the continued closure of U.S. borders to Canadian beef and cattle imports – ostensibly as a way to boost US domestic markets – NCBA’s membership called for a reasoned response based on science.

The road ahead for the industry is unclear and much remains to be sorted out. To the benefit of the U.S., much has been learned about BSE since it originally broke in the United Kingdom in 1986. Now is the time for the industry to pull together and face this challenge with a unified front. Everyone involved in this industry owes it to the business to educate themselves on the disease and the industry's response – and help deliver the correct information when and where they can.

Joe Roybal is editor of Beef Magazine, a sister publication of Western Farm Press.

e-mail: [email protected]

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