Beef producers and consumers who were holding their breath last week about two inconclusive test results for bovine spongiform encephalopathy can breathe a sigh of relief. After more testing, both cases were confirmed negative, just in time for Independence Day, one of the biggest beef-eating holidays of the year.
Barb Powers, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab System at Colorado State University, said beef consumers should not worry about inconclusive test results. "We're trying to explain that an inconclusive result does not equal a positive test [for BSE]," she said.
Powers said the inconclusive results are the consequences of a very sensitive initial rapid-screening test that is likely to produce false positives, all of which so far have produced negative results under further testing.
And, she said, the number of inconclusive results in the initial screening is likely to increase simply because the number of tests being performed is increasing. "We've probably done more testing in the last month than the U.S. has, ever."
Powers said all the animals that have been suspected of risk have been removed from the food chain as they have been tested, so there is no threat to humans. "As people learn and understand it will settle down," she said.
Rex Moore, president and CEO of Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, agreed. "Every time we get another inconclusive result it will become old hat," he said.
Moore said his company saw a tremendous increase in consumer interest after BSE was first discovered in the United States in December.
As consumers turn to natural and organic beef, they might be deterred by higher prices and lower availability. Though Moore said the natural beef industry is having no trouble keeping up with demand, the organic beef industry has felt more of the force of increased demand because it is a much smaller segment of the industry.
Frankie Whitman, a spokesman for Oakland, Calif.-based natural meat producer Niman Ranch, explained that retailers should be asking questions about where their beef is coming from and what is in the cows' diet. "I think people don't even realize what's in the feed," she said, referring to conventionally raised cows.
For Niman Ranch and other natural beef producers, traceability of the cows and a vegetarian diet are important characteristics that make their beef more attractive to consumers concerned with mad cow disease.