updated 1/26/2004 8:36:38 AM ET 2004-01-26T13:36:38

The beef industry launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign on Monday, one month after the nation's first case of mad cow disease and just in time for Super Bowl parties and romantic Valentine's Day meals.

"The Super Bowl is a great time for people to serve up halftime snacks," said Michele Peterson of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We see beef as sort of the star player."

The cattle group delayed its annual "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" campaign for two weeks following the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in a Holstein cow in Washington state.

Investigators subsequently learned the cow was born and raised in Canada, and there have been no new cases of the disease in the United States.

The Denver-based cattle association believes the American public remains confident in the safety of U.S. beef, and it is time to get people to buy more steak, roasts and hamburger for chili, beef sandwiches and dip. The advertisements promoting beef will run for four weeks on network and cable television. Print ads also will be used in a campaign expected to cost about $3 million, Peterson said.

The ads will make no mention of mad cow.

Mad cow is a public health concern because humans can develop a similar brain-wasting illness, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating contaminated beef products.

Cattle markets plunged after the mad cow announcement, and more than 30 countries banned U.S. beef, cutting off markets for about 10 percent of the nation's production.

The drop in cattle prices and loss of export markets could mean a 10 percent decline in net farm income this year, according to economic research firm Global Insight Inc. of Waltham, Mass. But the firm's report said beef demand has remained strong, indicating that consumers aren't greatly worried about the safety of U.S. beef.

Peterson said recent polls conducted by her group, the cattlemen's association, show 90 percent of consumers are confident that U.S. beef is safe.

"People saw the system works," she said.

Low cattle supplies and strong demand from Americans for steaks and hamburger — particularly people using the Atkins and other high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets — are buoying beef prices, said Darrell Mark, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska.

Prices paid for slaughter cattle fell from 91 cents a pound to 75 cents in early January, but bounced back this week to about 86 cents a pound, Mark said.

Cattle entering feedlots also dropped in price but rebounded, falling from December's 99 cents per pound to 86 cents early this month before rising again to about 91 cents, said Dave Weaber, director of research at Cattle-Fax, a Denver-based cattle market analysis and research firm.

Prices grocery stores pay for beef dropped about 18 percent, from $1.55 a pound in December to $1.26 a pound early in January, but climbed to $1.46 a pound by Friday, Weaber said.

Demand for beef has been climbing since 1998, fueled largely by more convenient, partially cooked, microwavable beef products, said Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Trends like the Atkins diet are more difficult to measure, Schroeder said.

But restaurants have caught on to the diet fad, with Ruby Tuesday, Burger King, Hardee's and other chains emphasizing beef over bread.

Demand for low-carb choices has not lessened since the mad cow case, said Ruby Tuesday senior vice president Rick Johnson.

"We have not seen any perceptible difference," Johnson said.

Several grocery shoppers in Omaha said mad cow disease was not a big concern for them.

"I don't think it's a significant enough risk to really worry about," Lou Dye said Thursday.

Kathryn Lefebvre said she does tend to buy hamburger that is ground at the store, rather than mixed off site.

"I think it's safer," Lefebvre said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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