Mad cow disease comes calling

Public confidence in the U.S. is unshaken -- so far

By Jack Neff, Contributing Editor

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The long-dreaded appearance of mad cow disease in North America finally happened in May, seemingly with the long-dreaded consequences. Stocks of beef-related companies such as Tyson Foods, McDonalds and Wendy's plunged 5 to 7 percent on the news and exports from the affected country were halted.          

Fortunately for the U.S. beef processing industry and its customers, the cow afflicted by bovine spongiform encephelopathy [BSE] was found in Canada. And despite plenty of prominent media coverage, public reaction has been fairly muted. But while the crisis was quickly contained, it also shed an unfavorable light on the beef and feed industry and intensified calls for stepped-up regulations, possibly as strict as those found in Europe, where BSE has caused Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in about 100 people and decimated much of the continent's beef industry.

For all the publicity, the risk posed by the Canadian case to the U.S., or even Canada, is remote. The cow in Alberta, removed from processing for human consumption when an inspector noticed it was having trouble walking, later was slaughtered and rendered for use in non-cattle, non-ruminant feed. To date, no research has indicated BSE can pass from ruminants to non-ruminants. The cow's age indicates it may have contracted a mild case of BSE before stricter feeding standards prohibiting the use of ruminant byproducts in ruminant feed went into effect in the U.S. and Canada.    

Despite the discovery in Alberta, the U.S. isn't considering amending feed restrictions to include a ban on the feeding of ruminant materials to all species of animals, said Lester Crawford, deputy director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) in a June news conference. Such a standard would mirror standards already in place in Europe.    

"We have a BSE response plan, and it's predicated on a couple of things," he said. "If we have BSE in this country and it's diagnosed and confirmed, then we'd consider some modifications [such as a total ban on ruminant use in feed]. But at this time we don't have BSE confirmed in the U.S., and so we're not making any changes in the plan. It's protected us since 1989, so we intend to keep the plan in place."     

Science notwithstanding, widespread coverage of animal cannibalism down on the farm has made breakfast the least appetizing meal of the day for newspaper readers and seemingly made recruitment for vegetarianism easier than ever. Such practices as feeding cow blood to calves, chicken droppings to cows and restaurant leftovers to virtually anything that moves in a farmyard have made for sensational news, even if none of those practices have been linked to the spread of BSE.

"There is a yuck factor," admits Richard Sellers, vice president for feed control and nutrition of the Arlington, Va.-based American Feed Industry Association (AFIA). "But people are so removed from farms, and some of these practices have been going on for 50 or 60 years. Packing plants are not pleasant places either, but that hasn't stopped people from eating meat."    

Adopting strict standards for use of animal byproducts in animal feeds, such as those found in Europe, would cost a minimum of $100 million and possibly as much as $1 billion annually. For a feed and rendering industry already hurting from a number of factors, it could be a crushing blow, Sellers said.    

"The consumer groups are all over this," he acknowledged. "But the FDA has got to follow the science, and the science is not there [for stricter controls]. You've also got to balance some of the costs. If dead stock animals are not picked up, you're going to have a veterinary health crisis in the in the United States."

The European ban on all use of animal protein in feed is only possible because of the nature of the European economy and governments, which pick up the tab for rendering for the entire livestock industry.

In the U.S., however, because of scrapie, a BSE-related disease found in sheep, no renderer will pick up dead sheep from farms in the U.S., he said. And the same thing could happen with cattle if rules were tightened.

Every cow head cut off and not rendered means a loss of $9 in revenue, Sellers said, and adds a $1.50 cost for disposal. Multiply that over 33 million head of cattle slaughtered each year in the U.S., and it adds up fast.      

Yet even without pressure from the government, beef processors are feeling pressure from such big customers as Wal-Mart Stores and McDonalds, which already are "sitting down with suppliers and seeing what they need to do," Sellers says.  

Even before the Canadian situation, AFIA had created a non-profit inspection service more rigorous than those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or FDA. The service currently covers about 10 percent of the feed tonnage handled in the U.S. and 15 million pounds of feed, though two to three more feed industry players have contacted AFIA each week since the Canadian crisis began. Sellers believes more big customers such as Wendy's may ask suppliers to submit to independent third-party inspections.

In the meantime, the U.S. has been in no hurry to lift the ban on imports of Canadian beef and cattle, despite widespread tests that so far have turned up no additional cases of BSE in Canada.    

"The fact that the discovery was made in Canada certainly shows that the system in Canada is working," said Karin Kernellu, communications manager of the Washington, D.C-based American Meat Institute. (AMI) "But it's my suspicion that the ban won't be lifted anytime soon. I think it would be safer to have all the information available." Specifically, she believes the U.S. will want a definitive explanation of how the cow in Alberta contracted BSE before opening the borders to Canadian beef again.  

Consumers, however, appear to have lost little confidence in the safety of the food supply despite the Canadian problem. NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y., found that the number of Americans concerned about mad cow disease jumped 14 percentage points to 61 percent the week that Canada announced its findings. However, their intentions to eat hamburgers and steak have remained unaffected. In a June poll, 56 percent of those queried indicated they would eat the same number of hamburgers as before the issue emerged, while 16 percent indicated they would eat more and 17 percent indicated they would eat less. The numbers for steak were virtually identical: Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they felt the food supply was safe.  

"Consumers are telling NPD that Canada is about as far away in their minds as Germany, meaning that even thought we're neighbors, mad cow disease in Canada has not affected Americans' intentions to eat beef in the U.S.," said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, in a statement.    

If mad cow were to hit the U.S., however, he thinks it would be a different story. NPD tracked eating habits in Germany following that country's mad cow outbreak and found beef-oriented restaurants were strongly affected for six to nine months.    

Despite the recent publicity, E. coli and salmonella remained bigger concerns for U.S. consumers, according to NPD , concerns that match the far greater likelihood of encountering those bacteria.   

But while mad cow hasn't affected the U.S., it has affected U.S.-based Tyson Foods, which owns Lakeside Packers, one of Alberta's largest packing plants, and one that's been operating at only 40 percent of capacity since the crisis and the U.S. import ban began.   

"We believe Canadian officials are taking appropriate steps in this matter," Tyson said in a statement. "We fully understand the rationale behind the USDA [import ban]."

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