Sunday, April 25, 2004
Niche Meatpacker Is Cut Off From Its Best Markets
The New York Times: "It isn't losing the Japanese market for filet mignon that bothers Bill Fielding most. It's losing the market for tongue.
Until a case of mad cow disease was found in the United States on Dec. 23, a tongue from his premium cattle fetched $17 in Japan. American wholesalers pay $3.50.
Asian buyers also paid more for the company's prime beef, but the real money was in the spare parts, said Mr. Fielding, chief operating officer at Creekstone Farms, a high-end beef producer with an ultramodern plant here in the flat Kansas corn belt. Mexico snapped up his stomachs and Russians paid 30 cents a pound for liver that goes for 8 cents domestically.
But after Dec. 23, foreign countries shut their doors. Creekstone lost 25 percent of its sales, laid off 45 of its 750 workers and idled its plant one to two days a week.
Japanese buyers assured Mr. Fielding that they would buy again if he tested his beef for the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
In response, he built a laboratory five feet from the overhead chain that carries skinned heads through the plant. His staff was trained in testing for mad cow, using a machine that gives results in seven hours, while the carcasses are still in the cooler.
But on April 9, the United States Department of Agriculture forbade Creekstone to test its cattle, saying there was 'no scientific justification' for testing young steers like those Creekstone sells. Certifying some beef for Japan as disease-free, the department said, might confuse American consumers into thinking that untested beef was not safe.
Calling those arguments 'ludicrous,' Mr. Fielding has threatened to sue. He says he only wants the freedom to please a big, fussy customer, and he accuses the department of bending to the will of the big meat companies that control 80 percent of the industry."
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