Eat Me

The only thing keeping the Japanese from buying the Midwest's finest beef is the USDA

Gateway's owners thought they'd come up with a solution in April, when they formally petitioned the USDA to allow them to test all of their beef for mad cow disease at their own expense and, if necessary, at a USDA lab. Gateway manager John Tarpoff was confident no mad cows would turn up at his shop: As a rule, the company slaughters only cattle that are less than two years old, and of the more than 180,000 confirmed BSE cases worldwide, only a handful have been found in cattle younger than 30 months of age.

The USDA, however, balked.

"The USDA is going with the position that it's unnecessary to do 100 percent testing for BSE. They feel that the United States does not have a BSE problem. And on all that I agree with them," Tarpoff says. "But Japan still takes the position that they won't accept anything from the United States that hasn't been tested. So our position is: Fine -- if that's what the Japanese want, we'll do it."

"Most people don't know what good meat is," says 
rancher and Gateway partner Charlie Ausfahl.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Most people don't know what good meat is," says rancher and Gateway partner Charlie Ausfahl.
Gateway Beef president Robbie Meyer is convinced 
the USDA is beholden to big business.
Jennifer Silverberg
Gateway Beef president Robbie Meyer is convinced the USDA is beholden to big business.

The issue that has thrown the red-brick slaughterhouse upon the tumultuous waves of international trade relations has driven a wedge through the cattle industry, pitting the powerful National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Meat Institute (which side with USDA) against smaller organizations that represent independent cattlemen. And Gateway's request is quickly turning into a public-relations quagmire for the USDA, which tries to assure the public it's taking an aggressive approach toward mad cow even as it obstructs meatpackers who would be happy to test 100 percent of their product. (Another company, Kansas-based Creekstone Farm, has petitioned the USDA to allow universal testing as well, also to no avail.)

"The department did not handle this well from a public-relations perspective," concedes Dan Glickman, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001 and now heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "They didn't explain this very well in the countryside. It's made them look as if they're in the hip pocket of the large packers."

The whole mess has made a cynic of Gateway president Robbie Meyer, who, as though to illustrate Glickman's point, contends the USDA is being manipulated by the nation's four mammoth meatpackers, which control more than three-fourths of the U.S. market.

"Japan wants us to test every animal. There are the amenities out here that have the capability to test every animal. Why not let us?" Meyer asks.

Then he answers his own rhetorical question: "They're not going to listen to a whiny little plant. They're going to listen to the people that feed them."

Fried chicken isn't Robbie Meyer's favorite meal, but that's what he orders when he eats out these days. "Do you get many good steaks anymore?" the cattleman asks, returning from the dimly lit buffet at Crystal's. "I mean, it's pathetic. I would be embarrassed if I brought you here and ordered a T-bone steak. I'm tired of that crap."

The sentiment garners slow nods of support from Gateway partner Charlie Ausfahl and hog farmer Danny Lewis. It's drizzling rain outside, and the threesome has gathered at this dusty Bowling Green, Missouri, café to discuss the unlikely topic of international trade. But as often happens when they meet beneath the café's stuffed deer heads and slow-moving ceiling fans, talk turns to the sorry state of beef.

"How many people you know, they go into a Golden Corral or some kind of Ponderosa," says Lewis. "They don't think they're eating bad steak."

"They've got that Wal-Mart mentality," Meyer sighs as his work-scarred hands dispatch the drumstick before him. "That is bullshit."

At age 68, Ausfahl has a good twenty years on his fellow ranchers. A life spent outdoors has imbued his skin with a sun-cured roughness. He's a lean man, limber and tough. And though the years have plucked away much of his hair, Ausfahl's eyes remain clear and crystal blue. "You know what that proves?" he asks, signaling the steak debate has been decided. "Most people don't know what good meat is."

Indeed, with its fat-flecked marbling and corn-fed flavor, prime Angus beef is not the sort of meat you're likely to find at the local Ponderosa. So rare is the product that it accounts for less than 1 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the United States. Nonetheless, in the highly consolidated meatpacking industry -- an estimated 82 percent of all beef is processed by Tyson, Cargill, ConAgra and Farmland National Beef -- many premium producers say they rarely get top dollar.

"Anytime you have buying power, if something happens that raises your costs, you pass that back to the next level in the form of a lower price," explains Ernie Davis, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University. "The margins for independent producers are so small that you've got to produce a lot to make a living on it."

Davis estimates that independent cattle producers likely average a $40 return per calf per year. It was to gain a little economic leverage that Robbie Meyer and the rest of Gateway Beef's ranchers started the cooperative in late 2002. The plant now slaughters a mere 200 head of cattle per week, processing the meat at a second plant in Overland. The meatpacking house trafficks predominantly in hormone-free beef, which enhances both marbling and flavor. It's a niche market, and Gateway's diminutive size allows its operators to ensure high quality. Unlike larger packers, which often buy entire lots at a time, Gateway operators select each animal individually. And in an industry where some slaughterhouses are known to kill as many as 5,500 head per day, Gateway rarely puts down more 65 animals in a single session.

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