Perception fuels scare over beef, experts say

Despite calls for calm, more mad cow tests urged

December 27, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Paul Adams | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Industry officials, food safety experts and consumer advocates lined up yesterday to argue over the future of beef in America, making clear that the question of whether the nation is facing a mad cow crisis is a matter of perception.

President Bush's spokesmen stressed yesterday that he is still eating beef. And a variety of academics defended the country's system of detection and protection, saying that even now the risk to animals - and to humans - is very low.

But Consumers Union and other advocacy groups called on the government to intensify its efforts, fearing that infected cattle and cattle products aren't being caught in the narrow net being cast for a disease that is fatal to humans.

About 20,500 of the more than 35 million cattle slaughtered this year were tested.

"The system did not work well. ... We clearly have to test far more animals," said Michael Hansen, senior research associate with Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute. "Europe tests approximately 11 million out of the national herd of 40 million. Japan tests every single animal that goes to slaughter."

It's not clear yet if American consumers have decided to pull beef from the menu because a cow in Washington state was found with the disease this week - Christmas dinners most frequently feature poultry and ham these days.

But cattle exporters have lost 90 percent of their international buyers, prompting the price of beef futures to plummet for a second trading day yesterday on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

By yesterday, more than 20 countries had banned imports of beef from the United States, the world's leading exporter of the meat. Sales abroad account for about 10 percent of the roughly $30 billion a year industry.

Tomorrow, a U.S. delegation will arrive in Japan to discuss the situation with officials in that nation, which purchases more than $1 billion of U.S. beef annually but closed its borders to the meat this week.

In the near term, consumers may actually see beef prices - which have been at historic highs - decline at grocery stores and restaurants, industry officials said, as the market is flooded with beef that was originally destined for export. And any decline in consumer demand could force retailers to discount prices until the situation is resolved.

"The whole world is going to look to see how we handle it," said David R. Lineback, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a collaborative project between the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

USDA officials, who said yesterday that they had quarantined two calves from the infected Washington cow, are considering options, including increasing the number of cows tested annually for the degenerative neurological disease.

They've also discussed implanting microchips in ear tags to track every animal from birth to its entry into the food system and writing new regulations for the handling of brain and spinal material from slaughtered cattle.

The agency had intended to raise the number of animals tested next year to 38,000 but may re-evaluate now that the disease has appeared. USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said the country's surveillance system is designed to detect infection in one in 1 million animals with 95 percent certainty.

"The steps we would be taking would be out of an abundance of caution," she said.

Few expect that regulators will follow Japan's lead and require that all animals be tested, a move that some estimate would cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars. The meatpacking industry has resisted calls for universal testing, arguing that the cost would be prohibitive.

But the United States may find itself pressured into significantly more extensive testing.

In the European Union, all animals older than 30 months of age are tested, because animal health experts think infections only occur in older animals. There have been reports of even younger animals testing positive in Japan.

"If the U.S. doesn't test, Japan's just not going to buy," Hansen predicted.

Janet M. Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, which represents meatpackers, said the mad cow surveillance system in the United States is more aggressive than in all other countries except those that have suffered an outbreak of the disease.

"We have a 100-million-head herd, and we have got one positive case with a surveillance system that exceeds the international standard by 40 times," she said.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said yesterday that it supports the USDA's plans to increase testing and doesn't think the meat from those animals should be shipped until the results come back.

"It's not a matter of money: We absolutely want to [identify] what level of testing is appropriate," said Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the association.

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