050815 Americans Keep Eating Beef Without Fear of Mad-Cow Disease

August 6, 2005

Sacramento, CA - Forty-eight hours after the U.S. Department of Agriculture cleared a cow of having mad cow disease, consumer Michelle Boyer walked into an Elk Grove supermarket Friday with plans to buy chicken and fish.

Like most Americans, Boyer believes U.S. beef is safe and wasn't making her choice based on fear of mad cow disease. "My kids like chicken and fish better," she said.

At a nearby McDonald's restaurant, trucker Richard Croft said he now eats mostly chicken and turkey -- but not for fear of mad cow-tainted beef. His doctor said red meat can aggravate his gout, a form of arthritis.

From Elk Grove to the eastern seaboard, Americans have largely continued to have faith in the U.S. beef supply, experts say, despite two mad cow cases in 18 months and eight anxious days before an potential new case proved negative Wednesday.

While 26 nations, including Japan and South Korea, continue to ban U.S. beef, the annual per capita consumption in this country for hamburgers, steak and barbecued tri-tip cuts is growing slightly as people seek more protein in their diets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the average American will eat 67 pounds of red meat this year.

"People are comfortable there is oversight by the USDA," said Dr. Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. "They generally don't feel the government is trying to pull anything over on them."

Mad cow, the fatal brain-wasting cattle disease known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has infected more than 183,000 cows in Great Britain and has been found in more than 21 countries.

Scientists think humans can contract a form of the disease, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, from eating parts of an infected cow. Worldwide, 178 people have been diagnosed with the fatal disease. More than 150 have died in Great Britain alone from definite or probable vCJD, the nation's Department of Health reported this month.

Fifty-three nations closed their borders to U.S. beef in December 2003 when a first cow in the United States was diagnosed with mad cow disease in Mabton, Wash. Many of the nations remain wary, including two of the biggest consumers of U.S. beef, South Korea and Japan. In 2003, the two nations accounted for nearly $2 billion of $7.5 billion in U.S. beef exports, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

A positive diagnosis for the disease in a cow near Lubbock, Texas, on June 24 prompted Taiwan, the Philippines and six other nations to ban U.S. beef. On Thursday, the Philippines reopened its borders.

Among the 26 countries whose borders remain closed are Indonesia, Romania, Belize, St. Lucia, Tahiti and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said meat export federation analyst Cheryl Kamenski.

Although Americans eat more chicken than beef -- an anticipated 86.5 pounds per person this year -- experts attribute that to convenience and lower chicken prices rather than to fears of mad cow disease.

"I don't think it's connected to fear of BSE," said National Chicken Council spokesman Richard L. Lobb, representing the $23.3 billion industry. "There's a lot of supply and demand questions. We just feel convenience is the biggest factor driving chicken consumption. It's easy to prepare; it's hard to ruin."

He cited a boom in supermarket sales of rotisserie chickens.

"That's been great for us," he said. "There's dinner.

Also steering more eaters toward chicken is fast-food giant McDonald's. The company, which claims its menu is 29% chicken, introduced three new chicken sandwiches this week.

The beef industry, which had an estimated 2005 retail value of $78 billion, is fighting back with new products, said Gregg Dowd, chief economist for the National Beef Cattlemen's Association.

"We've discovered the average consumer decides what they're going to eat 20 minutes before they eat it. If you don't have a product that meets that lifestyle you're sunk. The industry has worked on products you could put in a microwave and heat up and go. It's not about your grandma's pot roast."

Organic beef is increasingly popular for those who like beef but want assurances the animal hasn't been fed animal parts.

"People are concerned and asking where the meat is coming from," said Paul Cultrera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which began selling beef in 2003. "We try to buy it locally, and it's not coming from factory farms."


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