The new administration in Washington, D.C., has already signaled that business will be usual no more. Unlike many of his White House predecessors, President Obama, not even a month in office, did not hesitate to meet privately with a caucus of members of the opposition party; he has said the administration would review all pending regulations (including mandatory country of origin labeling for food and USDA’s proposed National Animal Identification System) to determine their necessity, efficacy and cost-effectiveness; he has moved aggressively on foreign diplomacy; and he is working to fix our sputtering economy. Whether or not you agree with the new President’s plans, proposals and politics there’s no arguing that the Obama Administration now moves forward with a momentum not weighted with old animosities and ways of doing things. The President’s guiding rule seems to be: the old ways got us into this trouble, so new ways will have to get us out.
We will not know the true result of his approach for years to come, of course. But perhaps sooner we will know if Obama’s is a transformative presidency: that is, whether other segments of American society, including business and industry, accept and implement the Obama Way – out with the old, in with the new – to meet and solve their own issues and problems. If it happens, if America endorses the President’s approach in neighborhoods and communities, in churches and synagogues and mosques, in corporate board rooms and in manufacturing and processing plants, Obama’s will be a historic presidency indeed.
I am hoping – and I don’t think naively – that the meat industry will be one of those sectors that decides to retire its old assumptions in favor of new ideas. It has been, after all, an industry cross-hatched by old divisions and rivalries because, well, "that’s just the way things are," as I’ve heard people in the business say. But of course nothing just has to be unless you’re talking about gravity. If ever there was an industry ready for the rewards of a new day, it’s the meat and poultry industry.
Consider the tired "rules" we’ve labored under for so long. Why must producers always distrust packers and vice versa? Isn’t the ultimate purpose of each side to deliver a product of quality and value to consumers? Speaking of consumers, must they always be skeptical of the industry and must the industry always doubt the sincerity and knowledge of consumers? Isn’t the goal of both sides to share in the goodness provided by a wholesome, safe and affordable product? Why does the industry always assume its government regulators and the organizers of its workforces endeavor only to make business more difficult? Isn’t an economically sustainable industry – that is, one that continually meets its regulatory obligations, pays its employees stable and family-supportable wages, raises its livestock for health as well as for profit, and protects, preserves and sustains the natural environments in which it operates – in the best interests of all concerned? Why do we so often fall for the quick answer rather than the long-term solution? Must the word "commodity" always drive the industry’s thinking?
After all, there’s no set of stone tablets brought down from a mountain ordering that an industry obey the commandments of selfish interest. The only rule any industry must follow religiously is to survive.
We have realized over the past couple of years that our industry’s survival is tied to much more than what happens inside our plants, corporate suites and trade-association offices. The world price of feedgrains, the rates of foreign currency exchange, the local availability of willing workers, the purity and plenitude of water and other natural resources, the integrity of foreign-sourced ingredients, the ecology of microscopic pathogens – all these and more bear on the ability of our industry to remain in forward gear on the highway of commerce. It sure ain’t like the old days now, is it?
No, it ain’t. We can behave as if it is, however, and thus guarantee an exorable decline for our industry, for the new conditions of the world care nothing for the old assumptions. Or we can wake up to the new day that’s here and begin working toward our continued survival. I am optimistic for the latter. The industry now boasts several young, smart executives in leadership positions who don’t remember the old sawdust-floor, sell-it-or-smell-it days because they weren’t even born yet. That’s for the good, I think. It’s for the good of our future.