WILMINGTON, Ohio – The Ohio Cattlemen’s Association has previously hosted leaders from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association at its annual meeting, but none as eager to attend as Jan Lyons.
Lyons, who was born and raised in Columbiana County, Ohio, is the new president of the national cattle group. She spoke to the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association annual banquet in Wilmington Jan. 24.
“My roots are in Ohio; I will never forget that,” the Kansas cattlewoman said.
Her Ohio visit came between stops in Washington D.C., where NCBA’s government affairs office is located, and Phoenix, Ariz., where the national annual meeting runs now through Jan. 31.
Challenge. Lyons assumes leadership of the cattle group at a challenging time, on the heels of the Dec. 23 announcement of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, found in a Washington state Holstein.
“BSE is something that strikes fear into all of us,” she admitted.
An emergency response plan that was in place let the organization respond immediately to the media and to galvanize all segments of the industry into action, and with one voice.
“Thank goodness we had that crisis plan in our hip pocket,” Lyons said.
NCBA immediately activated an informational Web site, www.bseinfo.org, held immediate and daily news conferences, and worked closely with USDA to disseminate information.
Consumer confidence. American consumers seem to be responding to facts and not rumors about BSE, Lyons said.
NCBA has tracked consumer awareness of beef and confidence in the U.S. beef supply since 1996.
Christmas week surveys found consumer confidence at 80 percent, Lyons said. The following week, that jumped to 88 percent.
Currently, consumer awareness of BSE is at 97 percent and consumer confidence in the safety of the beef supply at 90 percent.
“Our system worked,” Lyons emphasized. “Our food supply is safe.”
BSE fallout. What concerns Lyons now, in the aftermath of the mad cow disease, is the potential for bad policy.
“We have to avoid knee-jerk reactions to enact legislation that isn’t science-based,” she stressed. “We have to be cautious with the aftermath and what comes next.”
Lyons and other Ohio cattlemen voiced concerns during the association’s afternoon meeting about the clarity of the new downer, or nonambulatory, regs.
She does expect changes in the FDA feed ban, which NCBA would like to expand to address feeding poultry litter to cattle.
Animal ID. It is inevitable, Lyons said, that animal identification will be required, spurred by the BSE incident and the difficulty the USDA has had in tracking cattle.
“It’s time is due,” she admitted, but said NCBA members have two primary concerns with any ID program.
First, Lyons said the cost of an ID program can’t be shouldered solely by producers. “The government needs to step up and pay part of this program.”
Secondly, cattlemen are concerned about the confidentiality of such a database.
Riding the wave. A substantial drop in beef demand in the last 20 years, is turning around dramatically, Lyons said.
Since 1997, consumers have been eating more beef, requesting more of it in restaurants and seeing more of it on menus.
Lyons credited some of the shift to checkoff-funded nutrition research that refuted the earlier thought that beef was bad for you.
In 2003 alone, consumer demand for beef increased more than 5 percent, a figure Lyons called “phenomenal,” considering the retail price of beef.
“Consumers are paying more dollars for the opportunity to eat beef,” she explained. “More dollars are being spent for our products.
Trade concerns. World trade is another priority, Lyons said, even though the United States exports only 10 percent of its beef production.
Issues among North American countries, particularly in regard to BSE, are at the forefront.
Lyons said U.S. agricultural leaders are working with their counterparts in Canada and Mexico to harmonize health requirements and other live cattle regulations.
The cattle industry leader added, however, the United States must “insist” that countries remove “arbitrary trade barriers.”
Canada, for example, requires that U.S. feeder cattle imported into Canada during the summer be tested for anaplasmosis and bluetongue. Both are livestock diseases that have no impact on human health.
U.S. cattlemen say the additional cost puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
Stay involved. In discussing many of the issues, Lyons implored the Ohio cattlemen to get involved with the state and national beef organizations and play a role in policy and issues that affect farmers.
“It’s important to have a voice from the heartland.”
She said the national organization is looking to change its bylaws in Phoenix that would allow all NCBA members to vote on policy even if they don’t attend the national convention.
“NCBA and OCA are your organizations,” she emphasized. “You determine the policy and directions.”
Jan Lyons on …
* Animal ID: “It’s coming.” But livestock owners can’t bear all the costs and confidentiality questions remain.
* Country-of-origin labeling: “We think it has some merit,” but it’s a poorly written law, excluding 95 percent of products going to food service.
* BSE: “The bottom line is the surveillance program worked.”
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