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"The bottom line on this whole thing is that our economic survival depends on the little niches we've tried to develop," says Meyer. "To compete with the big guys, you've got to have some kind of a niche."
It was just such a niche that Gateway found when it signed an exclusive contract with Brach's in New York. The co-op also began wooing representatives from the Japanese food distributor Sumikan Bussan. Perennially in the market for high-quality steak, the Japanese buyers promised to purchase 50,000 pounds of beef per week from Gateway, Meyer says.
It was a massive coup for the small plant, effectively increasing production by 50 percent. Better still, Meyer says, Sumikan Bussan was willing to pay a premium -- up to $80 or $100 more than Gateway could get per carcass on the domestic market -- and a significant portion of the meat they were looking for comprised cuts that don't sell in the kosher trade. The Japanese even indicated they'd be interested in buying more beef if Gateway could produce it. (Representatives of Sumikan Bussan did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
"We had to build us another damn cooling room specifically for their product," Meyer recounts. For that, the plant president says, Gateway invested $260,000. The co-op also hatched plans to expand its kosher facilities and add two more cattle pens, a flash freezer and a second refrigeration room.
But only a week before the new cooling room was completed, on December 23, 2003, the USDA announced it had found a case of mad cow in Washington. Gateway's owners were left with an empty meat locker and a quarter-million-dollar bill for improvements.
Even among Angus cattle, calf number 2114 is a fine specimen. Charcoal black and low to the ground, number 2114 is everything a cattle producer could hope for. And when the animal bolts through the auction house's sliding door and into the sawdust-lined pen, John Tarpoff straightens in his seat. "Oh, wow," he says under his breath. "You can't pass that up."
On this Wednesday morning, the Gateway manager has come to the Farmers Livestock Marketing Association auction just outside Greenville, Illinois, to bid on cattle. Sporting a meticulously groomed handlebar mustache, he's dressed casually in khaki cargo pants and a denim Wrangler shirt. But as number 2114 is prodded around the picket fence-lined ring with three other calves, Tarpoff is all business. When 2114 kicks back and forth searching for an exit, the animal's hide reacts sluggishly, as though the fatty subcutaneous layer isn't entirely connected to the frame.
"The one in the middle one has a lot more finish," Tarpoff says, admiring number 2114's corn-fed fat. "Look at the ass."
Like every other buyer seated on the cinderblock building's risers, the 50-year-old Gateway manager is making quick, real-time judgments about the meat the calves on display will produce. The two hillocks on the rump -- are they well formed? Is the animal solid on its feet? How about the snout? Is it long, indicating an older animal? Or is it too short, meaning the meat won't be as flavorful? Tarpoff doesn't so much see a calf in the ring; he sees collection of steaks, hidden by hide and attached to bone. "When I'm looking at cattle, I'm thinking: 'Who am I going to sell it to?'" he says. "I'm always looking."
And in the case of calf number 2114, so is everyone else. Starting slowly, the auction caller speeds his incomprehensible cadence as he takes bids for the four-calf lot. Here buyers do not hold up placards or call out their bids. But with a nod, a smile, a subtle hand gesture or cocked eyebrow, the price per pound ascends.
"Three will be prime, one will be choice," Tarpoff predicts as the bidding creeps up by fractions of a penny per pound. It's finally down to him and one other buyer. But the Gateway manager will not be deterred. Sold -- for 92.75 cents per pound.
"Was that enough money for you?" Tarpoff asks the farmer-and-son duo that produced the calves. It's a high price, he'll say later, but the last lot he bought from this producer turned out to be 100 percent kosher -- two to three more cents per pound as beef. "That's real unusual," he says. "We usually get about 50 percent kosher."
At such a small auction house, it seems unlikely that a sick animal could go undetected. And indeed, not long after Tarpoff buys his Angus quartet, an older Holstein is pulled from the auction block because it is panting.
But that's the tricky thing about bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Very little is known about the disease. Researchers theorize that BSE is caused by an abnormal protein that bores sponge-like holes in an animal's brain. The protein affects the central nervous system, but scientists don't really know how. They believe BSE is transmitted from animal to animal through consumption of infected tissue, but the disease is slow to manifest, and an animal may not show symptoms until 30 months after infection. Besides the potential to affect the meat supply, the danger to humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is that BSE has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a neurological disorder that has a similar incubation period and effect on the human nervous system.