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Consumers shrug off mad cow safety fears

Demand for beef remains strong four months after mad cow disease was found in the U.S.  Yet American beef is spurned by major trading partners and a growing collection of organizations, including some beef producers, are assailing the government for its handling of mad cow.
Theater Group Questions President Bush's Stand On Testing Beef
Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth, playing President Bush, reacts to his score on a quiz which asked Bush "R U Chicken about Testing Beef?" At this April 21 demonstration at the USDA in Washington, 13 organizations called on Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to let companies use private tests for mad cow disease.Stephen J. Boitano / Getty Images

Four months ago, on Dec. 23, the first U.S. case of mad cow disease appeared.  The American beef industry had always feared that day, but beef producers and the government were prepared. 

Officials snapped into action, swearing to the safety of U.S. beef.  “I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner,” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said.

A flood of studies and statistics were cited, showing how comprehensive U.S. testing had been, how the country had been prepared, how the system worked. And perhaps most important: It was only one cow.

For the most part, consumers listened. Some shoppers turned away from beef, and specialty options like organic beef are selling strong. But overall demand for beef remains strong, with prices high enough that major packers are making money. The fears of financial ruin haven't materialized.

The same can't be said about the export market for American beef.  Japan and other buyers of American beef are not convinced enough has been done to ensure the safety of U.S. meat. Exports are projected fall 83 percent. And a collection of consumer and health organizations -– along with some small beef producers -– are slamming USDA for its handling of mad cow.

“It becomes clearer and clearer to us that USDA and big business are in bed together,” says Jack Pannell of the Government Accountability Project, which protects whistleblowers. The project represented Tom Ellestad, who manages the Moses Lake, Wash., plant where the lone infected cow was found.

Dissent from the industry
Both the USDA and major beef producers have insisted all along their mad cow response was based on good science. After the case was announced, the USDA quickly revealed its finding that the ailing Holstein was a “downer” and couldn’t walk on its own. It quickly banned downer cattle from human consumption, a move long lobbied for by food and animal-health activists.

Then Ellestad –- as well as one of his former employees, Dave Louthan -- came forward to dispute the USDA’s key contention. The diseased cow could walk, they argued. It had seemed healthy.  Since testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as mad cow disease is formally known, had focused (and will continue to focus) on ailing cattle, Ellestad argued it was a total fluke the sick cow had been tested.

Others in the industry have been unsettled by the government’s actions – small farmers like Russ Kremer, who bet a chunk of his financial future on Japan and is struggling not to lose it.

Raising hogs and cattle in Osage County, Mo., Kremer serves on the board of the 58-member Gateway Beef Cooperative, which operates its own plant and sells high-end Angus beef to places like New York’s famed Peter Luger Steakhouse.

Farm co-ops haven’t generally fared well against Big Ag, but Gateway found niche markets and had looked overseas for other ways to compete in the market. Japan was eager to buy. By the end of last year, Japanese buyers had toured Gateway’s facilities and were ready to strike a deal.  Then mad cow hit.

Japan shut its borders. Gateway’s big chance – to sell up to $50,000 a week in premium steaks and specialties like beef tongue -- vanished.

Its experience has mirrored that of another small packer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef of Kansas. Both companies heard from Tokyo: Japan still wanted their beef, if they would follow Japan’s stringent testing requirements and check every animal for BSE.

No private tests
In a highly public rebuff, the USDA rejected Creekstone’s request to conduct private mad cow tests – up to 300,000 a year -- saying it couldn’t be scientifically justified.

Now Gateway is also asking the USDA to conduct private tests. It says several other small slaughterhouses would also agree to Tokyo’s terms in order to recapture their business.

For Gateway, this is serious money. Not only will the Japanese pay up to $6 per pound for custom cuts, nearly 50 percent more per pound, but they will pay for the tests, too.

“This is the difference between us surviving and not surviving,” says Kremer.

The USDA’s Creekstone decision was a watershed moment for many small farmers, and for groups that felt the government’s testing efforts were tailored to the needs of big meat corporations.

The National Farmers Union, on whose board Kremer serves, wants the USDA to allow private testing. Other ranchers’ groups, like the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, agree; so do several Democratic lawmakers and some of Creekstone’s Republican representatives on Capitol Hill.  Some conservatives are puzzled that the Bush administration, usually accommodating to the business world, would choose this one area to prohibit a private industry initiative. 

Kremer is frustrated by what he perceives as mixed messages. The USDA has for years told small farmers their only way to compete was to seek out niche markets, like beef for Japan. Yet, as it struggles to turn back the Japanese ban, it won’t allow individual slaughterhouses to do the one thing that would save those markets. “They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth,” he says.

Finding a common theme
Of course, mad cow has been a once-in-a-lifetime moment for food safety and consumer groups.  The Creekstone fracas has been especially galvanizing. But many also see foreign nations’ refusal to accept U.S. beef as a signal of what the government is doing wrong.

“The USDA and the U.S. generally has to listen to the countries that have more experience with this problem,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition watchdog group. “You can’t just put a rosy face on it and say, ‘Well, they’ve only found one cow.’”

Even so, the mad cow debate has played out with little public attention –- or concern.  In January, just three weeks after the Washington case was discovered, a Consumers Union survey found just three in 10 Americans were worried about mad cow disease.

Yet even at that point, many consumers endorsed measures the federal government still won’t adopt. Some 60 percent endorsed universal testing for beef, which only Japan currently supports, though many nations test half or more of their cows. Ninety-five percent said they would pay 10 more cents per pound for testing.

The USDA, and the beef industry, categorically dismiss 100-percent testing, citing scientific risk analyses. (Scientists continue to debate this. Researcher Stanley Prusiner, whose research helped establish the human link to mad cow, supports universal tests.). Instead, the government has expanded testing to about 200,000 cows in the next 18 months, perhaps 10 times the number tested last year but still a fraction of the 35 million or more cows slaughtered annually.

“Two hundred thousand? They’re slaughtering 35 million? You do the math,” says Florence Kranitz, president of the Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease Foundation.

More than food safety
Some forms of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, which killed Kranitz’s husband, can occur spontaneously. But a variant form (vCJD), often considered the human equivalent of mad cow, has been linked to eating beef tainted with the deformed proteins, or prions, that cause BSE.

The United States has recorded just one case of vCJD, and that patient’s infection was traced back to Britain, where mad cow was tied to over 140 vCJD cases. About one in 1 million Americans is afflicted with CJD, usually the spontaneous, or sporadic, form, and Kranitz’s group supports them and their families. While the two types are very different, the sporadic form's causes continue to puzzle researchers.

Thus, while Kranitz is concerned about the food supply, her interest in mad cow goes beyond beef. She’s worried the Centers for Disease Control don’t allocate enough money to prion diseases and haven’t focused on it.  Revealing autopsies often aren't performed on possible CJD patients after death, usually because the option isn’t suggested to their families.

Since the mad cow discovery, there has been growing suspicion about sporadic CJD cases in the United States. After a spate of CJD deaths, all linked to a racetrack in Cherry Hill, N.J., was documented that state’s senators called for a federal investigation.

Given the mystery of CJD and its links to mad cow, Kranitz is frustrated by the beef industry’s resistance to support stronger safeguards. “I really don’t think people are doing this with evil intentions,” she says. “I just think they don’t understand they’re playing with fire.”

'Accountable every day'
Admittedly, it is a motley group of voices speaking against mad cow, not just consumer groups but environmental and animal-rights organizations. The dovetailing of interests frustrates many in the food industry, some of whom believe it is simply drum-banging by fringe groups with shadow agendas.

“Some of these groups are not very accountable,” says Kendal Frazier, vice president of communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We are accountable every day in the marketplace.”

Additional regulations, the industry argues, are not only unneeded for beef they already believe is completely safe. It will ultimately be higher retail prices at a time when Americans have finally started to put more beef on the plate.

Yet there is a growing divide among beef producers. Organic farmers, and niche producers like Creekstone and Gateway, see mad cow as an opportunity to show they’re willing to do whatever it takes to ease their customers’ concerns.  Large food companies see their efforts as a tactic to undermine consumer confidence and drive shoppers to higher-priced niche products.

“If we want to keep feeding Americans affordable meat supplies, the system we have now is effective and safe and smart,” says David Martosko, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, which monitors corporate critics and is funded by the food and restaurant industries. “I’m sure there are some activists who are willing to pay twice as much for ground beef.”

Still, over a dozen advocacy groups recently petitioned the government for far more stringent BSE measures.

Asking for more
Some demands simply reflect current USDA projects, like a national cattle tracking system – though there have been concerns that the system will initially be voluntary. Others have been already been flatly rejected by the government: testing for all cattle older than 20 months; a ban on all downer animals, not just cattle.

Critics also complain the government is dragging its feet. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently lashed out at the Food and Drug Administration, which pledged in January to change  its rules on cattle feed, but still hasn’t. And additional cattle testing won’t begin until June.

Meantime, there has been little progress in opening key foreign markets like Japan and Korea. Creekstone may sue the USDA over its refusal to let them test, which it says is costing it $200,000 a day.  The USDA is careful to call the tests “surveillance” for new cases, not a food safety check.  Rather, the agency says food safety can be assured through rules like its recent prohibition from human food of specified risk materials – like older cows’ brains and intestines.

Americans spent $62 billion on beef last year and the desire to keep chowing down seems pretty strong.  “The outlook for our industry is very positive,” says Frazier.

If the marketplace is the indicator, Americans have spoken with their wallets. Unless, perhaps, another infected cow is found.