Eat Me

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

And then there's the cost of doing business. "Our advantage on international trade is that we have a high-quality, low-processing-cost product out there. Our packers are so large and so efficient, so industrialized, that nobody in the world can compete with them. And every little hurdle you put in there, you're ruining that -- you're ruining our competitive edge," he says. "In the long run, what the USDA is doing is in the interest not only of the producers, but the consumers. Making sure the product is safe -- that's foremost on their mind, but the other thing is to get it to the consumers in a form they can afford."

Former Agriculture Secretary Glickman counters that in the name of food safety, costs may have to rise. "The packers have made the judgment that the Japanese require 100 percent testing, and if our government goes along with it, then they're going to have to do the same thing for U.S. consumers," Glickman says. "It is going to cost a little more money, and I think the industry is just going to have to recognize that that cost is part of doing business."

Public Citizen's Peter Lurie takes a philosophical view. "You kind of have to go one of two routes," he maintains. "The one is to get used to the idea that you can't be certain. The alternative is to test everything, and then you have to face the question of whether you think that given everything else we have in this country -- given the amount of effort we expend on other illnesses -- if that makes sense."

After all, there has been only one confirmed case of BSE in the United States, and that cow came from Canada.


In the quiet of Gateway Beef's cooling room, where a few slaughterhouse workers are quartering sides of beef, carcasses hang coat-like from the ceiling. Co-op manager John Tarpoff gestures toward an Angus carcass graded USDA prime. "You can tell the age of an animal by looking at the thoracic vertebrae," he says. In the animal before him, the cartilaginous bones have not fully hardened. Like most of Gateway's beef, this animal was slaughtered at between twelve and twenty months of age. Even if the animal had been infected with BSE, the infection would have been too recent for a test to detect.

Tiny rivulets of fat peek out through the exposed flesh. The carcass is sheathed in a luxurious layer of fat, and the meat has firmed in the holding room's chill. The typical carcass takes between 36 and 48 hours to properly chill, and Tarpoff believes that is plenty of time to send out brain samples for testing. His terms are easy: "Whatever testing is to be done -- fine, that's what we'll do," he says. The Gateway manager runs his hand up the inside of the carcass. The meat has passed for kosher; soon it will be ferried to the kosher butchering station nearby. Meanwhile, the slaughterhouse's new refrigeration room sits three-quarters empty.

"We're okay, but different times of the year it's not that way," Tarpoff says. "You know: Your margins disappear and you end up being in the red quite a bit. That's why the export market is so important."

Nonetheless, Tarpoff doesn't hold out much hope. The plans to further expand the slaughterhouse have been deferred indefinitely, and he awaits the USDA's decision more as a formality than from any sense of anticipation.

"I would hate to think that because I'm the little guy I get picked on," he says, turning away from the beef. "But we're so small and insignificant in the total scope of things that what we want or don't want doesn't have a whole lot of effect on anything. I'd love for the USDA to say, 'Hey, we'll use you as a test case,' but I'm not holding my breath."

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