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Processing regulations tightened
The USDA and FDA have teamed to tighten several sets of regulations in response to the mad cow discovery. Among steps taken by the USDA:
* No longer marking BSE-tested cattle as passing inspection until confirmation is received that they have tested negative for the disease.
* Prohibiting use of the skull, brain, trigeminal ganglia, eyes, vertebral column, spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia of cattle 30 months of age or older and the small intestine and tonsils of all cattle in the human food supply.
* Expanding the ban on use of high-pressure advanced meat recovery (AMR) methods to remove spinal cord tissue to also include nerve cell clusters attached to the spinal cord, and banning the use of AMR to separate meat from skulls or spinal columns of any cattle 30 months or older.
* Prohibited air-injection stunning of cattle in the slaughter process to ensure portions of the brain aren't dislocated into muscle tissue that may be used as meat.
* Immediately banning all non-ambulatory or "downer" cattle from the food supply.
Consumer reaction muted
While mad cow disease created a panic as it swept across Europe and Japan in the 1990s and 2000, reaction in the U.S. and Canada has turned out to be largely a non-event.
In fact, Canadians have actually increased consumption of beef since the discovery of a single Angus cow infected with the disease in May. Restaurant sales of steak and other high-end cuts rose 5 to 10 percent last summer, and Canadians had 198 home meals with beef last year, up 2 percent from 2003, according to market research firm NPD Canada. One reason is that prices fell once Canada couldn't export its beef.
Not surprisingly, NPD's U.S. unit found that concerns about mad cow disease reached an all-time high the week after the infected cow was discovered. Nonetheless, those concerns aren't likely to have much impact on domestic consumption. Indeed, some 74 percent of U.S. consumers indicated they planned to eat the same amount or more beef the week after the scare, and the same proportion said they believed the food they buy is safe.
Meanwhile, a Harris Interactive poll conducted in January found that only 21 percent of U.S. respondents said the mad cow discovery would affect where or what they eat, with about three quarters of them indicating they would eat less beef.
And even they may have changed their minds, according to Tyson Foods Chairman and CEO John Tyson, who in a late-January conference call with analysts said that "actual demand for beef stayed strong [before and after the mad cow discovery]The consumer has basically said this is a non-event."
Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, also takes consumer concern about mad cow with a grain of salt. "Americans' concerns don't necessarily translate into a change in behavior," he said, "but it's clearly on our radar screen again. As long as the numbers of mad cow cases remain small, it will have a minimal impact on our eating habits. If the numbers of mad cow cases in the U.S. increase, we will be looking more at what happened in Europe than what happened in Canada."
"The consumer reaction in the U.S. has been pretty low key," said Kiran Kernellu, spokeswoman for the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif. "If you have a discovery of a second infected cow or more, it could be a different story. But we're hoping that won't happen, and the USDA and FDA have taken steps to ensure it doesn't."
-Jack Neff, Business Editor
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