ADAIR, Iowa�Veteran cattleman Dave Nichols has a recurring thought some mornings when he awakens.
"After hearing everything so bad about beef and livestock, I wonder why I'm such a bad guy," said the 72-year-old cattle producer. "Some days, I feel like a tobacco farmer."
Nichols represents the future and optimism of the cattle industry. This spring he oversaw the birth of 1,200 calves on his spread in Adair County, up about 200 from previous years, and has sold 400 bulls to other producers for seedstock.
Until a recent dip, cattle prices were at record highs. Beef exports hit record levels in 2011. Yet, cattle producers feel they're on the defensive in a public relations struggle.
The controversy over lean finely textured beef, derisively known as "pink slime," is a here-we-go-again battle in the defensive war the livestock industry has fought for four decades. The original hit to red meat began with scientific warnings about the connection between animal fats and heart disease in the 1960s, which became mainstream recommendations by cardiologists to reduce red meat consumption.
That's been followed by a barrage of blows, some more tied to personal beliefs and changing food preferences than scientific evidence. Cattle producers fear their industry could go the way of Big Tobacco, where warnings of health risk eventually shriveled sales. The average American eats 22 % less red meat (defined as beef, pork, lamb and veal) than 40 years ago.
The latest controversy was fed by social media, catching the industry by surprise. Meat packers have added the ammonia-treated beef scraps to ground beef for two decades, with few known problems.
The uproar caused the closing of Beef Products Inc. plants in Waterloo, Iowa, and two other locations in Kansas and Texas, putting 660 people out of work.
A beef processor went into bankruptcy last week, citing lost demand for beef trimmings. On the Chicago Board of Trade, cattle futures prices dropped 8 % from early March.
"And to think that a big reason the trimmings are put into the ground beef is to make it more affordable to middle- and lower-income people to feed their families," said Nichols, who has sold his cattle to 22 different nations around the world.
Factors lead to falling demand
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has called for Congress to investigate the "smear campaign" behind the latest controversy. Yet, the domestic decline in beef eating �and the larger consumer concerns over industrialized agriculture � has been growing for years. Were it not for the booming export markets, cattle producers would face shrinking demand.
The forces against beef have included:
� A push toward more whole-grain and vegetable diets beginning in the 1970s. Schools and consumers are embracing "Meatless Mondays" as part of a trend toward healthful eating.
� Criticism from the environmental movement unhappy about the large amounts of nitrogen and pesticides needed for production of corn livestock feed.
� A more powerful animal rights movement, which has used undercover videos to portray livestock producers as abusers of farm animals.Reaction to 'pink slime'ALDI: No longer selling.BURGER KING: Quit using in December.COSTCO: No longer selling.DAHL�S FOODS: Say the store has never carried the product.FAREWAY: Says it has never used.HY-VEE: Announced they would cease carrying the trimmings, but then reversed itself and will carry the product, with signs labeling it �lean finely textured beef.�MCDONALD�S: Quit using in December. RED ROBIN: Says it has never used.TACO BELL: Quit using in December.TARGET: No longer selling.WAL-MART STORES INC.: The company said its Walmart and Sam�s Club stores will begin selling meat that doesn�t contain the trimmings. It did not say it would stop selling beef with the filler altogether.WENDY�S: Says it has never used.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, took his agency from its traditional role as protector of the nation's dogs and cats into a political activist organization that has pushed, with partial success, voter referenda against animal confinements.
Cattle producers who can live with claims that red meat is unhealthy climb the walls over the animal cruelty accusations.
"We treat our cattle better than pets," said Vince Graham, a cattle producer. "If necessary, we get up at 2 a.m. to get out and tend to cattle. During calving we hardly sleep."
Another producer, Faye Binning, asserts that cattle producers are on the right side of the conservation story. "We hear that Iowa needs more grasslands," she said. "Who plants most of the grass? It's the cattle producers, because we need it."
Yet, the health concerns over beef eating have been harder to fight. Cattle producers like Nichols remember warily how a sharp decline in cigarette smoking in the last half-century was prompted by package warnings, then a ban on television advertising.
Ulka Agarwal, chief medical officer for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said of the red meat industry, "the evidence is stacked against them, that red and processed meat are dangerous."
The Physicians Committee in recent years has put up an in-your-face billboard in Des Moines proclaiming a link between rectal cancer and eating bacon.
All the medical, diet and cultural trends have had an effect.
Cattle producers in Iowa and the rest of the U.S. have gotten the message about reduced demand. The USDA put the total U.S. cattle inventory in January as 90.8 million head, 2 % below a year earlier and the lowest inventory of all cattle and calves since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952.
The smaller number of animals means fewer packinghouse jobs. Even before the issue exploded last month, Iowa learned of the probable closing of the original Iowa Beef Processors plant at Denison. The closing will cost 400 workers their jobs.
Changing menus, shifting tastes
However, beef is still a symbol of power and success.
"I don't hear people say they want to go out and celebrate good fortune by eating a salad," said John Lawrence, longtime head of the Iowa State University Beef Institute and now head of ISU's Extension Service.
Yet, Lawrence and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey acknowledge that red meat consumption is down, partly as a function of reduced production, but also in changing eating habits.
While Branstad has protested against Hollywood and the media on several occasions during the latest dispute, Northey points to a more basic reason why anti-meat sentiment seeps into popular thinking.
"We're less connected to the sources of our food today," Northey said. "Even in Iowa most people are a generation or two removed from the land. Fifty years ago everybody knew where beef and pork came from. Today they don't, and when you show a video of meat processing on network TV or on the Internet, it can disturb people."
The beef industry doesn't see demand rebounding. Supplies are expected to remain static in the foreseeable future, and processors continue to contract. Where a sow hog can produce up to 20 piglets a year, cattle reproduction is much slower.
A calf born this spring won't be ready to give birth until summer 2013, and the nine-month gestation period would bring the new animal into the world in 2014.
Prices will stay relatively high. U.S. cattle prices increased 25 % last year, driven primarily by a 30%increase in beef exports.
The beef industry is putting its hopes on newer and different cuts of beef that will reflect different consumer tastes.
David Dahlquist of Des Moines, a nationally recognized public artist and teacher, says the "foodie" movement among chic urbanites might bring about a new impetus for beef.
"I know a lot of foodies, and they like beef," Dahlquist said. "Most of them aren't vegetarians. They like beef. They just want it in different cuts."
Meanwhile, cattle producers plan to focus on doing what they do best.
"What a great spring we had, with the warm weather," Nichols said, exhilarated by the new births. "Best spring for calving I can remember."
International interest grows
While Americans' taste for beef has hit a plateau, foreign countries are buying more U.S. beef than ever before. In 2011 exports of red meat species hit a record $11.5 billion after increases of 30% for beef and 17% for pork.
The demand hasn't cooled. Since January 1 red meat exports are up 2% from a year ago.
"Developing countries want more protein, and they associate red meat with economic progress and higher living standards," said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
The USDA's latest weekly export report for the week ending last Thursday showed the biggest customers for American beef since Jan. 1 are Mexico (37,000 metric tons), South Korea (32,000 metric tons), Japan (27,600 metric tons), Canada (22,200 metric tons) Vietnam (21,700 metric tons) and the former Soviet Union, 11,400 metric tons).