This rhetorical question, borrowed from the popular '84 Ghostbusters movie, serves as a timely lead-in to my thoughts this month.
The phrase fits perfectly with the situation our cattlemen neighbors found themselves in when news of the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the U.S. broke on Dec. 23.
This was the worst possible news for the beef and dairy industries. In the pork industry, an outbreak of hog cholera, foot-and-mouth disease or African swine fever would be on par with the BSE scare.
At first blush, the BSE news could fairly be described as devastating. It was a situation in dire need of damage control. As more information trickled in, cooler heads prevailed and a strategic plan was initiated to provide the news media and the general public with a more balanced view of the real risks and a badly needed dose of facts and common sense.
Luckily, the beef industry had the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) and the checkoff-funded Cattleman's Beef Board to field hundreds of calls, set up teleconferences and generally provide some credible science to a situation hell-bent for sensationalized headlines on every news program from your local radio station's farm report to CNN.
The coordinated efforts of NCBA and USDA officials served as the baseline for steady, sensible information to a general public that has been sensitized to disasters ranging from the misguided apple Alar scare to the devastating sight of the crumbling Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
Calm was needed.
Common sense was essential.
Scientific facts were the criteria for credibility.
Industry Response Is Critical
Think for a moment — what would have been our industry's response if this had been an outbreak of hog cholera or African swine fever instead of a Holstein cow diagnosed with BSE? Who would you call?
The U.S. pork industry is currently blessed with the counterparts of the beef organizations. As you know, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is your public policy and advocacy organization serving you in legislative and regulatory arenas. The National Pork Board allocates checkoff dollars to research, producer and consumer education and pork promotions.
Although the BSE situation did not hit the pork industry as hard as it did the beef industry, there were questions about the susceptibility of pigs to the disease, the impact on domestic pork supplies and our export markets. Both the NPPC and the Pork Board stepped up to the plate. Staff and elected officers (pork producers) of both organizations were armed with scientific facts and the perspective needed to satisfy the scoop-hungry news corps.
Without this coordinated effort — who would have been standing at the podium fielding the edgy questions, addressing innuendos about the safety of the meat supply, reassuring the public that every precaution was being taken, and reaffirming that the safety of their food was comparable to no other in the world?
What If Checkoff Goes Away?
In the past three to four years, there has been a lot of discussion about the self-help checkoff programs. There's been a good deal of fussing about the role of the National Pork Board and the mandatory checkoff, NPPC and its voluntary “producer consent” contributions and the priorities of each.
This sort of challenge and push for accountability are usually good. They foster discussion and often bring focus and, when needed, change.
I can't think of a better time for beef and pork producers to step up and answer these questions:
When disaster strikes — who you gonna call?
Will you have credible spokespeople available to provide sensible answers, facts and perspective, to represent your industry fairly and accurately?
Who you gonna call when the TV news bureau resurrects film footage of an infected animal in another country taken 15 years ago and uses it to portray the current situation?
Who are you going to call when information is distorted, exaggerated and presented as fact?
You are free to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the two organizations that represent the U.S. pork industry — and you should. At the end of the day, both should represent U.S. pork producers and the products they provide to this country and the world. But never, ever underestimate their value to your industry in a time of crisis. On those difficult days, someone must step to the microphone to represent your industry with well-documented facts.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning mandatory commodity checkoff programs is drawing nearer. The outcome is unpredictable. But one thing is for sure, failure to plan for and establish an industry “voice” critically needed in a time of crisis would surely haunt us all.