Dan Koons may not single-handedly be able to lift the latest Japanese ban on U.S. beef, but the Shirley beef producer might have started the ball rolling.
Koons, manager of Funk Farms Trust, has entertained guests from around the world for years. Last summer, he, his family and staff hosted the Illinois Forage Expo, which attracted nearly 1,000 visitors.
So, when he got a call a couple of weeks ago from the Japanese consulate in Chicago, he didn't hesitate to welcome nine Japanese legislators to the farm.
"Some time ago, a group of minority party members of parliament visited some beef farms and beef processing plants in Kansas. When they got home, they held a press conference and bashed what they'd seen," said Koons, who was not asked to host the group.
Koons' visitors belonged to the majority Liberal Democratic Party. Eager to see for themselves the ins and outs of U.S. beef production, they toured the same processing facilities owned by Tyson and Creekstone Premium Farms. They also wanted to see how beef producers raised their animals.
Nearly two years ago, the Japanese government banned U.S. beef following a case of BSE, or mad cow disease, in Washington state. The ban was lifted early last year for cows aged 20 months or younger devoid of any high-risk BSE parts, such as the brain, spine and bone marrow. Some scientists believe there may be a link between eating beef from infected cattle and a fatal human brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
The renewed ban, imposed last month, occurred when Japanese inspectors found spinal material in a shipment of U.S. veal. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said the shipment posed no human health risk, but stricter guidelines have been implemented at the meat processing plants involved.
"I was impressed with the group," said Koons. "They were very interested in animal identification and age verification. Another big thing was the feed source. We do not feed bovine parts in the United States. I sign a documentation form to send to packers."
In turn, Koons receives confirmation of feed quality from DeKalb Feed, where he buys the food his cattle eat. Feed mill operators test the feed, and inspect trucks arriving at the mill for any signs of contamination before loading the trucks.
When Koons buys young cattle to feed to market weight, he gets documentation from the calf producers regarding age verification and identification.
About 100 of 700 cattle raised on Funk Farms Trust are age verified. In most cases, Koons buys calves from producers who birthed the animals. So, the producers can easily verify their age.
Koons noted that bovine parts thought to harbor mad cow disease were banned from feed in the United States in 1997. That means only 6 million of 90 million cattle in the nation were born before the feed ban.
"We should be fast closing in on eradication of BSE," said Koons, noting the U.S. oversees an extensive surveillance program for suspect downer cattle - animals that cannot stand, meaning they exhibit possible disease symptoms.
Koons said the Japanese legislators also wanted to know his honest opinion about a number of issues, including the 20-month age restriction for U.S. beef entering Japan.
"I told them I believed in a science-based system. It's been proven that a 30-month age restriction is in order. I said the 20-month restriction was just political," said Koons.
Where's the beef?
Illinois beef producers had 1.3 million head of cattle on farms as of Jan. 1. Of the total, 446,000 were beef cows, 255,000 steers and 25,000 bulls. The rest were heifers.
About 500,000 calves were born on Illinois farms in 2005 compared to 510,000 in 2004. Nationally, 37.8 million calves were born last year, up about 1 percent from the previous year.
U.S. beef producers had 97.1 million head on farms Jan. 1. There were 33.3 million beef cows, 16.9 million steers and 2.3 million bulls with the remainder as heifers.
Pantagraph Farm Editor Chris Anderson writes about agriculture every Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.