But, as dismal as things may be for American beef producers, there are glimmers of hope and confidence in our food system.
No one knows more about the impact of one BSE cow than Canadian ranchers. The dust was just beginning to settle for them when the bad news came from USDA on Tuesday afternoon. And no Canadian cattleman has been closer to the BSE issue than Bob Balog, auction market owner and rancher from Lethbridge, Alberta. He has some experience-laden advice for his American friends.
"The U.S. beef industry can survive this thing," says Balog with the emphasis of a podium-pounding auctioneer. "But, the number-one thing you must do is show solidarity for your industry - from the cow-calf producer to the retailer - you must demonstrate to that your beef is safe and wholesome and the best protein on the planet."
Balog knows about solidarity. He knows people will eat beef in the face of a BSE case.
"The Canadian consumer never blinked," he says. "In fact, we are eating more beef than anyone can remember because, as a country, we rallied around our industry - pointed no fingers and made absolutely sure that our consumers were 100 percent aware that we have a safe beef supply."
And, for now at least, Canadians are putting their money where their mouths are - and still allowing imports of U.S. beef into Canada. Balog says he was on the phone until 3 a.m. today morning with Canadian politicians and bureaucrats at the highest national levels - trying to convince them that the worst thing that could happen would be for Canada to close the border to U.S. beef.
"We must demonstrate that North America is in this together - that we have all the firewalls and systems in place to assure a safe and wholesome food supply," he adds. "This is not a time to play politics or think of retribution - it's a time to come together and see this crisis through."
Balog admits that there were some Canadian cattlemen who reacted with delight following the news of discovery of a BSE cow in the U.S.
"I don't have time for that kind of nonsense, though," he adds. "And the fact must be known that this case is pulling our markets down right along with yours. This is our collective North American problem and we have to do what we can to help our American neighbors see their way through this."
"Science on our side"
From his ranch in Bruneau, Idaho, National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Eric Davis echoes Balog's words. He and others within the hierarchy of NCBA were awake throughout Tuesday night and this morning, cranking out interviews, conducting damage assessments and keeping producers, media and consumers appraised of the fast-moving developments swirling around the BSE crisis.
"There's never been a time when we need to come together more as an industry than right now," says Davis. "Assuming this is in fact a case of BSE, we need to realize that while we as beef producers are victims of what happened in Washington, we are not to blame anyone or point any fingers - that can come later as we figure out how to prevent this from ever happening again."
Davis says the worst thing now is fear-mongering and rumors. "We've known all along that the risk of any case of BSE in this country would be purely economic - and not a significant risk to public health."
As the next few days and weeks unfold, beef producers should "get their arms around" the BSE issue, Davis adds. He implores all producers to learn everything they can about BSE. He asks them to be sure not to provide any misinformation and to try to refrain from spreading rumors.
"The positive side of this whole thing is that we have the 'science' in our favor," he says. "We know from the Canadian experience that once consumers know the facts surrounding BSE, they will have confidence in beef and demand it without reservation."
Meanwhile, he says, the industry must try in every way possible to go about business as usual - from the cow-calf producer to the retailer selling beef over the counter.
"We'll get through this - I'm confident in our system," he says. "We'll get the international borders open as soon as we possibly can and let the markets get back to where they were before Dec. 23rd. I pledge to do everything I can - 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if necessary - to help see our industry weather this storm."
Clint Peck is a contributing editor for Beef Magazine, a sister publication of Western Farm Press.