Natural Foods Merchandiser

Meat Sales Remain Beefy Despite Health Concerns

With a one-two punch, the beef industry has taken a beating this month. The discovery of two new cases of mad cow disease in Canada (and the possibility that a cow from the same herd is living undetected somewhere in the United States) has renewed demands that the border remain closed to Canadian beef imports. The other black eye came from the Journal of the American Medical Association. In its Jan. 13 issue, Dr. Michael J. Thun reported on a study of nearly 150,000 adults, which showed that those who ate the most red meat and processed meat had a 50 percent higher incidence of cancer than those who ate the least.

Certainly, the more cases of mad cow disease (also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy) that are discovered, the more consumers worry about the steak on their plate, despite assurances like the one that came from Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "We remain confident that the animal and public health measures that Canada has in place to prevent BSE, combined with existing U.S. domestic safeguards, provide the utmost protections to U.S. consumers and livestock."

But the cow in the second case was born more than six months after Canada implemented a ban on feeding beef remains to cattle. Previous cases all involved cattle raised before the feeding ban was passed. The new case raises the question: Was the ban violated, or is some other factor responsible for the transmission of BSE? Another question: Where is the cow from the same herd that officials say was exported to the United States? And will this affect the Bush administration's plan to reopen the beef border in March?

In response to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would send a team to Canada to investigate the circumstances surrounding the newest cases. "We will continue our ongoing work with Canadian officials in their epidemiological investigations to determine the facts of these cases," said DeHaven.

Ed Loyd, another spokesman with USDA, said a lot of information will come out of the team's science-based fact-finding mission. He said it's been suggested that "feed that had already been purchased [prior to the 1997 ban] had been held by different ranchers. There's a period of flushing all that feed from the system. It's one of the things we want the team to look into."

With regard to cows from the affected animal's herd, Loyd said, "There are a few birth cohorts that have been traced to the U.S. as destined for slaughter a number of years ago" and one was confirmed as having entered the States in February 2002. The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service "is cooperating in looking into the records specific to those animals," he said, adding that whenever cattle are destined for slaughter they must undergo ante-mortem and postmortem inspections for disease to prevent entry into the food supply. APHIS has also launched an investigation and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is "keeping us apprised of their investigation," Loyd said.

While fighting this more immediate threat to consumers' perception of the safety of beef, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association responded to the JAMA article by discounting its relevance. "The research did not differentiate between beef, other red meats and processed (or preserved) meats in its analysis. Therefore, it provides little meaningful information to consumers. The NCBA also emphasized beef's high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid "shown to have anti-carcinogenic effects and inhibit tumor growth and development."

Perhaps the only good news for the beef industry these days is the USDA's release of the new dietary guidelines. "The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offer an important message for good health: Choose naturally nutrient-rich foods first from all food groups," said Mary K. Young, executive director, nutrition, for the NCBA. "Along with colorful fruits and vegetables, nonfat and low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, beef is a premier naturally nutrient-rich food. Calorie-for-calorie, lean beef provides more nutrients in fewer calories than many other animal proteins."

Consumers seem to have taken little notice of beef concerns. In fact, according to the NCBA, cattle prices today are at their highest levels in more than a year, fetching $92 to $93 per hundred pounds. Wholesale beef prices are averaging $1.50 a pound, versus an average over the last two years of $1.43 per pound, the trade group said.

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