Archive for Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Beef: It’s safe for dinner

December 31, 2003

It's an economic reality that consumer apprehension can devastate the market place. Before that uncertainty occurs in the cattle and beef industry, area officials and beef experts want to remind consumers to separate the facts from the fear.

A week ago, health officials confirmed the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in Washington state. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a neurological disease found in infected animals' brains and spinal cords.

The case should not dissuade consumers from purchasing beef, officials contend.

"It's really not that big of a problem," said Frank Van Fleet, Wyandotte County Farm Bureau board president. "What we have is one isolated case. There is no proof at all of it being anywhere else. I would have no problem eating hamburgers from the West Coast to the East Coast."

Leon Stites, an agricultural and natural resources agent for the Leavenworth County Extension Office, agreed with Van Fleet.

"There are a lot of people uninformed right now," Stites said. "At this point there's only the one case, so I wouldn't be too terribly afraid of it."

The Kansas Beef Council reinforced Van Fleet's and Stites' opinions that beef products are indeed safe.

"Due to the strength of the U.S. system and its ability to prevent the spread of (mad cow), this is an animal disease story, not a food safety problem," said Tom Toll, Kansas Beef Council chairman. "Consumers should continue to eat beef with complete confidence."

The Kansas Beef Council contends the United States has ample safety nets built into a system to prevent a spread of mad cow disease. Officials with the beef council point to a study conducted at Harvard University, which indicated the United States is well equipped to prevent a spread of mad cow.

People can contract a variant form of mad cow disease by eating the infected products, in this case the brain and spinal cord. However, research indicates the mad cow agent is not found in whole muscle meat such as steaks and roasts, only in central nervous system tissues.

Another safeguard preventing a spread of mad cow is a 1997 ban on animal byproducts for cattle feed.

Mad cow is not infectious from animal to animal, only through feed sources. Cattle contract the disease only after eating feed with tissue from the brain and spine of other infected animals.

This practice is at the center of the beef council's, as well as Van Fleet and Stites's argument, that consumers have little reason to fear the cattle and beef industry.

After last week's announcement, cattle futures and the U.S. export beef markets dropped.

"It's really hurt us market-wise in exports," Stites said. "We're virtually locked out right now."

Provided there are no more cases, the U.S. cattle and beef market could rebound much faster than the export market, Stites said.

There have been signs of a rebound in the market, but news of the one mad cow case may have been enough to do its damage, Van Fleet said. It'll be up to the common sense of the consumer to see how much damage occurs from here, he added.

"If there are no buyers, there is no market," he said. "Hopefully, this will play itself out before it trickles down to the local markets and breaks a lot of good, hardworking farmers."

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