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THE BEEF INDUSTRY TACKLES CRISIS MANAGEMENT
On Dec. 23, 2003, when the USDA issued the announcement about the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, the leaders of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Cattlemen's Beef Board were hunkered down in a conference room at their headquarters in Colorado. Just 15 minutes after the close of the announcement, the first press conference was held on the subject.

It was a situation that the beef industry had hoped it would never have to face, but one they had spent years preparing for. "At the time that England was in turmoil over BSE, the USDA asked NCBA, using checkoff dollars, to develop a response plan in the event that we ever had a case in the U.S.," says Monte Reese, chief operating officer of the CBB, the board that administers the beef checkoff. The plan, which had been revised several times over the years, included a Web site that could be turned on in an instant to provide BSE-related information to consumers and media.

"One of the difficult things with needing to communicate information to a wide audience quickly is that you can only talk to so many people," Reese says. "The Web site, located at www.bseinfo.org, allows us to make that science-based information available to anyone who wants to go after it."

BSE was a day-in, day-out exercise in issues and crisis management. In addition to the Web site, Diane Henderson, communications manager for CBB, said the response plan included daily updates and press releases, talking points for producers and state beef councils, countless media interviews and an issues forum at the 2004 Cattle Industry Convention.

In early January, the Executive Committee of CBB approved activation of a $1 million issues-management crisis fund to pay for additional BSE-related programs. This funding was used to step up advertising and marketing efforts to boost domestic demand, along with providing for consumer research.

So how do you measure the success of a crisis management program? "Probably the thing I've heard the most from producers is a thankfulness that we had a checkoff program in place to deal with an issue such as this," says Monte Reese. "Sometimes they'll say, 'Wow, how bad could this thing have been had we not been able to respond as quickly and as accurately as we did?'"

Understanding the beef checkoff program is crucial to understanding the industry's handling of the BSE crisis, but there still remains a great deal of confusion about its structure. "Since our first priority was to reassure consumers about the safety of U.S. beef, we didn't spend a great deal of time in those first few days mentioning the checkoff program - that wouldn't have meant a great deal to them," Reese says. As a result, CBB received calls from producers asking why their checkoff dollars were not being used. "Ultimately, we were able to get a number of press releases to the agricultural trade media showing how the program works and how checkoff dollars had been used," Reese explains.

The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill and assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to an assessment on imported beef and beef products. States retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the rest to the CBB. The checkoff program is aimed at building consumer demand for beef through advertising, educational programs, new product development, food safety research and foreign marketing. However, the Beef Board is prohibited in engaging in any sort of lobbying or policy-oriented activity.

In order to carry out its mission, the Beef Board is required to contract with national beef industry organizations. The main contractor for CBB is NCBA, but other groups include the U.S. Meat Export Federation, the American National Cattlewomen, the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture and the American Veal Association.

Now that the crisis has cooled, Reese says the Beef Board will return to publicizing and promoting the benefits of beef rather than defending its safety. "As time goes on, we need to move back to concentrating on proactive subjects - our whole reason for being is to improve demand for beef, and there are plenty of opportunities out there," Reese says. AM


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