Organic beef gains amid mad cow scare

US consumers search for alternatives, despite news that infected cow came from Canada.

It's hard for Rob Forstenzer to say who first anticipated the arrival of mad-cow disease on US soil: high plains cattle ranchers like himself, who for years have been raising "organic" beef, or consumers who are now rushing in droves to buy Mr. Forstenzer's steaks in restaurants, grocery stores, and straight from the farm.

But in light of public-health concerns arising from the discovery of a dairy cow infected with the brain-wasting disease concern over the nation's food supply is fueling a marketing bonanza for organic beef .

News this weekend that the infected Holstein likely originated in Canada eased concern and criticism over the nation's efforts to prevent and detect mad cow. Because the cow came from Alberta, the same province in which North America's first case of the disease was discovered this spring, some experts hoped it might be isolated to that region.

"This puts a different perspective on things," said Dr. Ron DeHeaven, chief veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture.

Still, consumers' awakening desire to have safer choices in the meat aisle of their grocery store, and lingering questions regarding the rigor of US inspection standards, could push organic beef out of its boutique niche and into the mainstream.

"Certified organic beef has become the new gold standard for safety," suggests Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Little Marais, Minn.

Two years ago, Mr. Forstenzer, a Montana cattleman, received the special designation of "organic" for his small herd of Galloway cows. Because of the way he raises the animals, they are less likely to come into contact with material that many experts believe can make food unsafe, and cause diseases like mad cow.

Most beef cattle are transported to as many as three or four different farms and factories in their lifetime. They are often rushed through these stages without individual care or inspection.

Forstenzer, however, knows the history of every animal he raises, because they never leave the ranch.

He personally selects the local butcher and the commercial retail outlets that carry his beef.

Cattle raised for the beef market are usually sent to large commercial feedlots, where they are fattened up on high protein corn and soybeans. They often receive hormones and antibiotics to speed growth and ward off disease.

Forstenzer's cows, conversely, receive no injections or antibiotics and are raised on local sweet grass and hay.

Organic farmers also rarely slaughter cattle that are sick or injured, a practice among conventional producers that has been widely criticized for its health risks.

They are less likely to contract mad cow, say experts, because their feed does not include high-protein animal waste and blood that is sometimes used to supplement non organic animal feed.

That material itself is not known to transmit the disease, but because animal remains are added to the feed, some experts worry that unsafe neurological material that can carry mad cow could find its way into the feed.

"The fact that there has never been a single organically grown cow [that has] come down with mad cow in England, France, the US or Canada is pretty telling," says Cummins.

One reason, he suggests, might be the different mentality among organic farmers. The speed with which most cattle ranches and beef processors attempt to bring cattle into the market creates an atmosphere of carelessness, say organic supporters.

Although a 1997 law prohibits cattlemen from feeding their animals food that contains brain and spinal cord tissue, feed that is often linked to the spread of BSE, enforcement is weak.

Organic advocates argue that the US system of detection is based more on the word of the cattlemen than on inspection. "People realize that centralized production and industrialized animal husbandry in feedlots are really at the root of the problem," says Cummins.

But a wide range of conventional agriculture supporters disagree. The emphasis on volume within the current system keeps prices low, but is also reliable and safe.

"With the safeguards in place, I feel confident in the safety and integrity of our food supply," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana.

Others point to the fact that even organic beef is not entirely safe from mad cow. Scientists admit that they do not know all the causes of the disease. They also suggest that calves from a non organic mother could be exposed to the disease during its gestation, even if the mother receives organic feed through most of her pregnancy.

In addition, regulation of the organic market has also been lax, say critics, as producers circumvent loosely worded laws to use prohibited feed and medicine. "The notion of a grass-fed cow is kind of a slippery term," says Forstenzer.

Since the announcement of the first US detection last week, more than 30 nations have blocked imports of American beef, and several legislators have called for the implementation of a more detailed cattle-tracking system and for more rigorous inspections.

Yet American consumers, experts say, are not likely to significantly reduce their consumption of beef as long as the US does not seem to be the primarily source of the disease.

Still, the simple detection of the cow has caused a new awareness among American consumers of different options for their beef. And the organic market will no doubt be a key beneficiary.

"This single incident is really going to change the awareness of the consumer and, judging by our experience, it already has," says Eric Stenberg, chef at the Savory Olive Restaurant in Bozeman, Mont.

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