Spurred on by the electric prick of a cattle prod, each animal in turn bucks and heels its way along a dung-encrusted incline to Gateway Beef Cooperative's red-walled restraining pen. The calf's 1,200 pounds are maneuvered into position. The rear door shuts, and the pen's floor rises, lifting the calf off its hooves. A powerful harness then rumbles to life. Its coarse jaws clamp down on the calf's head, pulling it upward. The lowing stops. The calf's gaze is forced skyward, its neck exposed, a pulsing, docile arc.
Raised on small farms throughout Missouri and Illinois, this calf and its brethren have been brought here to Granite City, Illinois, to be transformed into some of the best beef available in the United States. Gateway Beef, a small plant cooperatively owned by 58 ranchers and one kosher grocer in New York, deals exclusively in Angus cattle, a sort of aristocracy of the ruminant world. The plant specializes in top-quality beef, and a full 60 percent of its product is graded "prime" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the highest grade the USDA awards.
As part of an exclusive deal with Brach's Glatt Kosher Supermarket in Queens and Long Island, New York, Gateway kills kosher. So as the calf is slowly incapacitated, a yellow-aproned rabbi sharpens his knife for the slaughter. It's serious business, and so much as a nick on the rabbi's chalaf would render the meat unkosher. "No nicks, no rough edges, no nothing," says supervising rabbi Zev Safranovitz, watching his colleague hone the blade. To prove his point, Safranovitz calls the other rabbi over. The butcher plucks a whisker from his beard. "It cuts the hair," he says, slicing the air with the side of his palm. Taking his chalaf, the rabbi pulls the loose whisker over the edge of the blade, splitting it lengthwise.
After hosing down the animal's neck, the rabbi washes the blade and runs the back of his thumbnail along the knife's edge in a final check. He approaches the calf, and with a single upward thrust slices its throat, severing the jugular vein and carotid artery. All the while, the calf remains silent. Its eyes roll back. Its tongue goes limp. Through the burst of blood, the animal's face registers no expression. Within seconds the mechanical harness releases the head and neck, but the calf is already dead.
"The animals do not feel nothing," observes Safranovitz, a small, frail man who has walked with a cane ever since doctors removed his fibula and used it to replace his cancer-ridden jaw. "It's more humane than shooting an animal. This thing is still alive, and they're skinning it! I mean the non-kosher. After a bullet in the head, the animal is not moving but there's still life there. You can tell by looking at the eyes. Scientifically, I don't think there's any backup for what I'm saying. But you can tell. Any person can."
Meanwhile, a slaughterhouse worker has attached a shackle to one of the calf's rear legs. He hoists the carcass toward a butchering area, where another worker removes its head. Blood drains onto the cement floor. After hydraulic shears lop off the hooves, a massive rolling pin wraps itself in the hide, pulling it whole from the flesh. Safranovitz patrols the kill floor as his chalaf-wielding colleague inspects the animal's head for any sign of illness. Once the head has passed inspection, the rabbi carves away the cheeks, tongue and sweetbreads, placing them on a metal rack and discarding the head. A third rabbi plunges a hand deep into the carcass and removes the lungs. He uses an air hose to inflate the organ and check for signs of past pneumonia, which would render the meat unkosher. The carcass is then split lengthwise and relieved of root ganglia and spinal cord. Finally the two sides of beef are washed down and moved to a cooling room, where the meat hangs in two rows.
On the right goes the kosher beef, bound for Brach's. The rest will go to some of the nation's tonier restaurants -- Peter Lugar's in New York, perhaps, or Smith & Wollensky in Chicago.
But unfortunately for Gateway, none of it is headed for Japan.
Last year, Gateway's owners say, the co-op struck a deal with a Japanese food distributor that stood to up the slaughterhouse's production by 50 percent or more. And the Japanese buyers were willing to pay a pretty penny for the company's Angus beef -- up to $5 more per pound than Gateway could get on the American market for some cuts.
But Japan abruptly sealed its borders to U.S. beef late last year, after the USDA announced it had discovered a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- or mad cow disease -- near Yakima, Washington. Japan has tested all of its slaughtered cattle for the disease ever since it discovered mad cows in its domestic population in September 2001. The country now demands that the U.S. government certify that the same has been done for any Japan-bound exports. But thus far the USDA has refused, depriving companies like Gateway of a piece of the $854 million Japanese beef market.
Gateway's owners thought they'd come up with a solution in April, when they formally petitioned the USDA to allow them to test all of their beef for mad cow disease at their own expense and, if necessary, at a USDA lab. Gateway manager John Tarpoff was confident no mad cows would turn up at his shop: As a rule, the company slaughters only cattle that are less than two years old, and of the more than 180,000 confirmed BSE cases worldwide, only a handful have been found in cattle younger than 30 months of age.
The USDA, however, balked.
"The USDA is going with the position that it's unnecessary to do 100 percent testing for BSE. They feel that the United States does not have a BSE problem. And on all that I agree with them," Tarpoff says. "But Japan still takes the position that they won't accept anything from the United States that hasn't been tested. So our position is: Fine -- if that's what the Japanese want, we'll do it."
The issue that has thrown the red-brick slaughterhouse upon the tumultuous waves of international trade relations has driven a wedge through the cattle industry, pitting the powerful National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Meat Institute (which side with USDA) against smaller organizations that represent independent cattlemen. And Gateway's request is quickly turning into a public-relations quagmire for the USDA, which tries to assure the public it's taking an aggressive approach toward mad cow even as it obstructs meatpackers who would be happy to test 100 percent of their product. (Another company, Kansas-based Creekstone Farm, has petitioned the USDA to allow universal testing as well, also to no avail.)
"The department did not handle this well from a public-relations perspective," concedes Dan Glickman, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001 and now heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "They didn't explain this very well in the countryside. It's made them look as if they're in the hip pocket of the large packers."
The whole mess has made a cynic of Gateway president Robbie Meyer, who, as though to illustrate Glickman's point, contends the USDA is being manipulated by the nation's four mammoth meatpackers, which control more than three-fourths of the U.S. market.
"Japan wants us to test every animal. There are the amenities out here that have the capability to test every animal. Why not let us?" Meyer asks.
Then he answers his own rhetorical question: "They're not going to listen to a whiny little plant. They're going to listen to the people that feed them."
Fried chicken isn't Robbie Meyer's favorite meal, but that's what he orders when he eats out these days. "Do you get many good steaks anymore?" the cattleman asks, returning from the dimly lit buffet at Crystal's. "I mean, it's pathetic. I would be embarrassed if I brought you here and ordered a T-bone steak. I'm tired of that crap."
The sentiment garners slow nods of support from Gateway partner Charlie Ausfahl and hog farmer Danny Lewis. It's drizzling rain outside, and the threesome has gathered at this dusty Bowling Green, Missouri, café to discuss the unlikely topic of international trade. But as often happens when they meet beneath the café's stuffed deer heads and slow-moving ceiling fans, talk turns to the sorry state of beef.
"How many people you know, they go into a Golden Corral or some kind of Ponderosa," says Lewis. "They don't think they're eating bad steak."
"They've got that Wal-Mart mentality," Meyer sighs as his work-scarred hands dispatch the drumstick before him. "That is bullshit."
At age 68, Ausfahl has a good twenty years on his fellow ranchers. A life spent outdoors has imbued his skin with a sun-cured roughness. He's a lean man, limber and tough. And though the years have plucked away much of his hair, Ausfahl's eyes remain clear and crystal blue. "You know what that proves?" he asks, signaling the steak debate has been decided. "Most people don't know what good meat is."
Indeed, with its fat-flecked marbling and corn-fed flavor, prime Angus beef is not the sort of meat you're likely to find at the local Ponderosa. So rare is the product that it accounts for less than 1 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the United States. Nonetheless, in the highly consolidated meatpacking industry -- an estimated 82 percent of all beef is processed by Tyson, Cargill, ConAgra and Farmland National Beef -- many premium producers say they rarely get top dollar.
"Anytime you have buying power, if something happens that raises your costs, you pass that back to the next level in the form of a lower price," explains Ernie Davis, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University. "The margins for independent producers are so small that you've got to produce a lot to make a living on it."
Davis estimates that independent cattle producers likely average a $40 return per calf per year. It was to gain a little economic leverage that Robbie Meyer and the rest of Gateway Beef's ranchers started the cooperative in late 2002. The plant now slaughters a mere 200 head of cattle per week, processing the meat at a second plant in Overland. The meatpacking house trafficks predominantly in hormone-free beef, which enhances both marbling and flavor. It's a niche market, and Gateway's diminutive size allows its operators to ensure high quality. Unlike larger packers, which often buy entire lots at a time, Gateway operators select each animal individually. And in an industry where some slaughterhouses are known to kill as many as 5,500 head per day, Gateway rarely puts down more 65 animals in a single session.
"The bottom line on this whole thing is that our economic survival depends on the little niches we've tried to develop," says Meyer. "To compete with the big guys, you've got to have some kind of a niche."
It was just such a niche that Gateway found when it signed an exclusive contract with Brach's in New York. The co-op also began wooing representatives from the Japanese food distributor Sumikan Bussan. Perennially in the market for high-quality steak, the Japanese buyers promised to purchase 50,000 pounds of beef per week from Gateway, Meyer says.
It was a massive coup for the small plant, effectively increasing production by 50 percent. Better still, Meyer says, Sumikan Bussan was willing to pay a premium -- up to $80 or $100 more than Gateway could get per carcass on the domestic market -- and a significant portion of the meat they were looking for comprised cuts that don't sell in the kosher trade. The Japanese even indicated they'd be interested in buying more beef if Gateway could produce it. (Representatives of Sumikan Bussan did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
"We had to build us another damn cooling room specifically for their product," Meyer recounts. For that, the plant president says, Gateway invested $260,000. The co-op also hatched plans to expand its kosher facilities and add two more cattle pens, a flash freezer and a second refrigeration room.
But only a week before the new cooling room was completed, on December 23, 2003, the USDA announced it had found a case of mad cow in Washington. Gateway's owners were left with an empty meat locker and a quarter-million-dollar bill for improvements.
Even among Angus cattle, calf number 2114 is a fine specimen. Charcoal black and low to the ground, number 2114 is everything a cattle producer could hope for. And when the animal bolts through the auction house's sliding door and into the sawdust-lined pen, John Tarpoff straightens in his seat. "Oh, wow," he says under his breath. "You can't pass that up."
On this Wednesday morning, the Gateway manager has come to the Farmers Livestock Marketing Association auction just outside Greenville, Illinois, to bid on cattle. Sporting a meticulously groomed handlebar mustache, he's dressed casually in khaki cargo pants and a denim Wrangler shirt. But as number 2114 is prodded around the picket fence-lined ring with three other calves, Tarpoff is all business. When 2114 kicks back and forth searching for an exit, the animal's hide reacts sluggishly, as though the fatty subcutaneous layer isn't entirely connected to the frame.
"The one in the middle one has a lot more finish," Tarpoff says, admiring number 2114's corn-fed fat. "Look at the ass."
Like every other buyer seated on the cinderblock building's risers, the 50-year-old Gateway manager is making quick, real-time judgments about the meat the calves on display will produce. The two hillocks on the rump -- are they well formed? Is the animal solid on its feet? How about the snout? Is it long, indicating an older animal? Or is it too short, meaning the meat won't be as flavorful? Tarpoff doesn't so much see a calf in the ring; he sees collection of steaks, hidden by hide and attached to bone. "When I'm looking at cattle, I'm thinking: 'Who am I going to sell it to?'" he says. "I'm always looking."
And in the case of calf number 2114, so is everyone else. Starting slowly, the auction caller speeds his incomprehensible cadence as he takes bids for the four-calf lot. Here buyers do not hold up placards or call out their bids. But with a nod, a smile, a subtle hand gesture or cocked eyebrow, the price per pound ascends.
"Three will be prime, one will be choice," Tarpoff predicts as the bidding creeps up by fractions of a penny per pound. It's finally down to him and one other buyer. But the Gateway manager will not be deterred. Sold -- for 92.75 cents per pound.
"Was that enough money for you?" Tarpoff asks the farmer-and-son duo that produced the calves. It's a high price, he'll say later, but the last lot he bought from this producer turned out to be 100 percent kosher -- two to three more cents per pound as beef. "That's real unusual," he says. "We usually get about 50 percent kosher."
At such a small auction house, it seems unlikely that a sick animal could go undetected. And indeed, not long after Tarpoff buys his Angus quartet, an older Holstein is pulled from the auction block because it is panting.
But that's the tricky thing about bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Very little is known about the disease. Researchers theorize that BSE is caused by an abnormal protein that bores sponge-like holes in an animal's brain. The protein affects the central nervous system, but scientists don't really know how. They believe BSE is transmitted from animal to animal through consumption of infected tissue, but the disease is slow to manifest, and an animal may not show symptoms until 30 months after infection. Besides the potential to affect the meat supply, the danger to humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is that BSE has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a neurological disorder that has a similar incubation period and effect on the human nervous system.
In an effort to guard against spreading the disease, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a feed ban in 1997, prohibiting the then-widespread practice of feeding ruminant tissue back to other ruminants. A previous crucial step had been the 1989 import ban, which followed discovery of the disease in Britain and Europe and restricted imports from countries with known BSE cases. In response to the European outbreak, Britain now tests all slaughtered cattle over 24 months of age; France and Germany test more than half of all cattle slaughtered. Not to be outdone, the Japanese now test each and every slaughtered animal.
The United States, meanwhile, has traditionally tested only 20,000 of the roughly 35 million cattle slaughtered annually. And while scientists now believe BSE is able to survive its passage through the food chain, the FDA ban did not prohibit the common practice of weaning calves on cattle blood. The ban also continued to allow plate waste -- leftovers from institutions like prisons and universities -- to be fed to cattle and permitted bovine tissue to be fed to chickens (which may later be fed back to cattle in the form of chicken-farm byproducts containing dung, food, feathers and urine).
The FDA announced in January that it was working to close these loopholes, but to date the agency has published no final rule. Regardless, some fear the interim period has provided ample opportunity for BSE to slip undetected into the cattle supply. "You still have the problem of all the time prior to the exceptions ban," points out Peter Lurie, deputy director of health research for Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group. "The two most important things are the feed ban and the import ban. The feed ban is important because what sustains an epidemic is the feeding of cattle to cattle. If a human being eats an infected piece of meat, they may become ill and die, and that would be tragic. But the infection ends with them. What makes it worse is if the cattle eat the cattle: Then many, many more humans would have the opportunity to eat infected meat."
While the burden of regulating livestock feed falls on the administrative shoulders of the FDA, it is the USDA that is responsible for regulating beef production. In an effort to further insulate the beef supply from the disease, that agency announced early this year that it was expanding the list of cattle and cattle parts that are prohibited from entering the human food supply. Under the new rules, all "downer cattle" -- animals that are rendered unable to walk owing to broken limbs or neurological disorders (or premature death) -- are banned from the human food supply. The skull, brain, eyes, vertebral column and spinal cord -- the so-called specified risk materials -- of cattle over 30 months old are likewise off-limits, as is the small intestine, regardless of the animal's age.
"Whatever infection level there might be in blood [transmitted to calves weaned on cattle blood] -- and there probably is some -- it pales in comparison to the infection levels in the central nervous system, and so that's where the guts of the thing needs to be," Lurie argues. "The exceptions [to the feed ban] are important, and they need to be done away with, but the most important thing is the enforcement of the guts of the [original] ban."
It is in the guts, literally, that scientists are able to first detect BSE. According to the latest research, the protein can be isolated in an animal's small intestine six months after infection. The trouble is, detection entails a labor-intensive process that requires an entire year; after it is harvested, the protein must then be injected into mice to confirm its identity. Moreover, in order to retrieve the protein in the first place, the calf has to be killed. "The next time you can find the agent is about two years later in the brain and spinal cord," says Dr. William Hueston, a veterinarian who led the USDA's first BSE risk assessment in 1990. "So there's this very long lag time."
To further obscure matters, an infected animal will often appear perfectly normal. It's not until about 30 months after exposure that the animal will begin to show outward signs of infection, when the disease begins to destroy the brain. "It's an incredible disease," marvels Hueston, who served as the USDA's BSE spokesman before joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota. The only practical tests currently available are very limited in their effectiveness, Hueston adds. "The diagnostic tests we have can only detect the disease within three to six months prior to the animal showing any abnormal behavior," he explains. "So all of the rest of the life of the animal -- even though it's exposed -- it's perfectly normal by all the tests we currently have."
In other words, even if every single animal in the nation were to be tested under current practical methods, infected cattle could easily slip through undetected. Nonetheless, the disease has been found to occur in animals less than 30 months of age, and no less a luminary than Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner now believes BSE can occur spontaneously.
"At this moment we have detected eleven cases of BSE in Japan. Two of them were [in cattle] under 30 months of age," says Japanese agricultural attaché Sato Tadashi. "Japan appreciates these companies trying to meet the Japanese customers' requests, but some involvement of the U.S. government is necessary."
Gateway's request to the USDA came a month before the department launched an expanded BSE surveillance program. Whereas in previous years the agency tested about 20,000 cattle for the disease, as of June 1 it intends to test upward of 200,000 head in the next twelve to eighteen months. The government program targets animals older than 30 months, as well as downer cattle and any animals that display signs of neurological disorder. The agency estimates this so-called high-risk population at roughly 450,000 head.
"Assuming all the BSE-positive cattle are part of the high-risk population, if a total of 201,000 samples is collected, this level of sampling would allow us to detect BSE at the rate of 1 positive in 10 million adult cattle at a 95 percent confidence level," reads the plan. "Only older animals are an appropriate population for BSE surveillance testing."
But with a U.S. cattle population that likely exceeds 96 million, critics say, the USDA's testing regime won't yield the data the department is looking for. "By way of analogy: Drivers of red sports cars may be at greater risk of incurring or causing injury than drivers of other cars," posits Public Citizen's Lurie. "But most injuries do not involve red-sports-car drivers."
In other words, while Lurie concedes that the high-risk population will almost assuredly show a higher ratio of mad cow, he maintains that the majority of infected cattle will be found outside that group. "[The USDA's] sample size is based on the assumption that literally every infection that would exist in the U.S. would be among the downer cattle, and that's false," Lurie says. "It's just wrong, and they know it."
Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the USDA, disagrees. "Look: This is the population," Loyd contends. "If there are additional BSE cases in this country, this is the population in which we will find it. That is based upon all the scientific knowledge we have about the disease."
And given that the current tests are only able to detect BSE in its later stages, Loyd is probably right. Younger cattle may be carrying the disease, but the current crude testing methods won't be able to detect it. But by the same token, the state of the art is rapidly improving. Moreover, why should the USDA prohibit a company like Gateway from using the best available technology to satisfy a customer?
"The truth of the matter is, the more animals you test, the more likely you are to find a problem, but that's no reason not to test," offers former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "My own judgment is that the department should have allowed it -- there's nothing wrong with allowing these companies to do 100 percent testing if they want to."
State senator Michael Machado has introduced a bill in the California legislature that would allow that state's Department of Food and Agriculture to certify tests performed by individual slaughterhouses. "Individual slaughterhouses and producers don't have the wherewithal to challenge those rules and regulations," says Jody Fuji, a spokeswoman for the Democrat, whose district is about a hundred miles east of San Francisco. "This bill would force the USDA to engage in discussions with the State of California."
Closer to home, Missouri state representative Wes Shoemyer hasn't proposed any new legislation, but he supports Gateway's bid. "To stand in the way of these small businesses in this fashion -- it's really not the American way," says Shoemyer, a Democrat whose district is in the northeast part of the state. "It's absolutely wrong -- there's no other way around it."
The USDA maintains that the main reason it has declined meatpackers' requests for voluntary BSE testing is that the current BSE testing regime is not a food-safety program. It's a surveillance program, they say, aimed at identifying the extent to which BSE exists in the native cattle population. "We are being careful not to establish having those regulations used for marketing reasons," Loyd emphasizes.
But the USDA's decision is also informed by the very real question of public perception. A false positive, or so-called suspect test result, could cause panic about the safety of the entire U.S. beef supply, throwing domestic and international beef markets into turmoil. And then there's the more humdrum problem that the American public, seeing some tested meat, would assume all untested meat was unsafe.
"It implies a consumer-safety issue," says Loyd. "Essentially what you're saying is that this beef has been tested, and it's therefore safer than beef that hasn't been tested. What we're saying is that there's no scientific validity to a statement like that."
There's also the bigger world-trade picture, argues Texas A&M's Ernie Davis. Ever since the ban on U.S. beef went into effect, Japan has had to content itself with grass-fed Australian beef, which many Japanese view as inferior. In Davis' view, the U.S. should wait it out. "If we let Gateway [test its cattle], the Japanese will take their beef and not the rest," says Davis. "We don't need to restrict that market, and that's basically what we would be doing [if Gateway were allowed to test its product]."
And then there's the cost of doing business. "Our advantage on international trade is that we have a high-quality, low-processing-cost product out there. Our packers are so large and so efficient, so industrialized, that nobody in the world can compete with them. And every little hurdle you put in there, you're ruining that -- you're ruining our competitive edge," he says. "In the long run, what the USDA is doing is in the interest not only of the producers, but the consumers. Making sure the product is safe -- that's foremost on their mind, but the other thing is to get it to the consumers in a form they can afford."
Former Agriculture Secretary Glickman counters that in the name of food safety, costs may have to rise. "The packers have made the judgment that the Japanese require 100 percent testing, and if our government goes along with it, then they're going to have to do the same thing for U.S. consumers," Glickman says. "It is going to cost a little more money, and I think the industry is just going to have to recognize that that cost is part of doing business."
Public Citizen's Peter Lurie takes a philosophical view. "You kind of have to go one of two routes," he maintains. "The one is to get used to the idea that you can't be certain. The alternative is to test everything, and then you have to face the question of whether you think that given everything else we have in this country -- given the amount of effort we expend on other illnesses -- if that makes sense."
After all, there has been only one confirmed case of BSE in the United States, and that cow came from Canada.
In the quiet of Gateway Beef's cooling room, where a few slaughterhouse workers are quartering sides of beef, carcasses hang coat-like from the ceiling. Co-op manager John Tarpoff gestures toward an Angus carcass graded USDA prime. "You can tell the age of an animal by looking at the thoracic vertebrae," he says. In the animal before him, the cartilaginous bones have not fully hardened. Like most of Gateway's beef, this animal was slaughtered at between twelve and twenty months of age. Even if the animal had been infected with BSE, the infection would have been too recent for a test to detect.
Tiny rivulets of fat peek out through the exposed flesh. The carcass is sheathed in a luxurious layer of fat, and the meat has firmed in the holding room's chill. The typical carcass takes between 36 and 48 hours to properly chill, and Tarpoff believes that is plenty of time to send out brain samples for testing. His terms are easy: "Whatever testing is to be done -- fine, that's what we'll do," he says. The Gateway manager runs his hand up the inside of the carcass. The meat has passed for kosher; soon it will be ferried to the kosher butchering station nearby. Meanwhile, the slaughterhouse's new refrigeration room sits three-quarters empty.
"We're okay, but different times of the year it's not that way," Tarpoff says. "You know: Your margins disappear and you end up being in the red quite a bit. That's why the export market is so important."
Nonetheless, Tarpoff doesn't hold out much hope. The plans to further expand the slaughterhouse have been deferred indefinitely, and he awaits the USDA's decision more as a formality than from any sense of anticipation.
"I would hate to think that because I'm the little guy I get picked on," he says, turning away from the beef. "But we're so small and insignificant in the total scope of things that what we want or don't want doesn't have a whole lot of effect on anything. I'd love for the USDA to say, 'Hey, we'll use you as a test case,' but I'm not holding my breath."