Mad cow weighs down a $175 billion industry

New slaughterhouse procedures, such as barring 'downer' cattle from the food supply, aim to keep beef sales healthy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The first weeks of the mad-cow scare in the US are rippling out through the nation's economy.

In one way or another - from the tons of pet food made of "meat byproducts" for nearly 140 million cats and dogs, to the $200 million in beef waiting aboard ships and in port freezers, to meat-processing and trucking companies sending workers home - the $175 billion industry affects many millions of Americans.

"Beef. It's What's for Dinner," proclaims the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and American eating habits bear that out. Some 78 million meals featuring beef are served every day, according to industry and government figures, and it's not just the pot roast or filet mignon. Beef extract made from the remains of slaughtered cows is in taco fillings, pizza toppings, and other popular foods as well.

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Whether or not they're regular red-meat eaters, Americans are watching the situation closely. While two-thirds still think the beef supply is safe, according to a CNN-Time poll released over the weekend, a substantial 27 percent think otherwise, and they have either reduced their consumption of beef or stopped eating it altogether.

Officials think they know - but still aren't absolutely certain - where the Holstein slaughtered a month ago and later diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) came from, as well as how it contracted mad-cow disease. Most of the 81 cows in the suspect herd have yet to be tracked down. Livestock on a third farm in Washington State have now been quarantined. US Department of Agriculture officials hope to be able to account for the 20,000 pounds of recalled meat in the next few days.

But as new information on the case is revealed almost daily, it's unclear what the long-term economic impact will be.

"The US beef export market lost to mad-cow disease won't come back anytime soon," says Purdue University agricultural economist Philip Paarlberg. "We are going to have to assure our trading partners that the beef supply is safe, and that will take time."

"The mad-cow trade restrictions the United States imposed on Canada on May 20 remained rigid until Aug. 8, and even then the restrictions were only partially eased," says Dr. Paarlberg. "In the world's view, it's a North American beef market, not two separate countries."

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is moving quickly to address the issue. Among the new rules for beef production: "Downer" cattle (those injured or too sick to stand on their own) may not be used for human food; slaughtered animals inspected for mad-cow disease may not be processed for sale until test results are known; slaughterhouse techniques that can mix brain or spinal-cord tissue with muscle meat must not be used. Eventually, an electronic tracking system will allow quick determination of an animal's origin and history.

In some ways, Uncle Sam is following the lead not only of critics, but also of fast-food giants McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King, as well as several of the largest livestock markets in the country. These businesses have already restricted some potentially unsafe practices.

No longer slaughtering downed cattle is also likely to lead to better treatment of animals in the first place. One possible change: not packing them into trailers for 36 hours, which can cause broken legs.

"The ban will prevent enormous animal suffering by eliminating the cruel practice of dragging downed cattle to slaughter," says Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, an organization in Watkins Glen, N.Y., that provides shelter and lobbies for more humane treatment of farm animals. "Removing downed animals from the human food chain will give farmers the incentive to prevent the problem in the first place."

Unclear at this point is how many animals destined for the dinner table actually will be inspected. Until now, only about 1 in every 25 downed cows has been inspected for BSE and other diseases posing a threat to humans.

Cattle and meat producers are hoping for quick confirmation that the diseased Holstein was shipped from Canada. That might allow the US to declare that it is "provisionally free" of mad-cow disease under international standards.

But no matter what the outcome with this lone cow, beef industry practices and government regulation have been changed forever - perhaps in ways yet to be seen.

"The USDA's response is a step in the right direction," says Andrew Knight, a veterinarian in Seattle.

"However, the USDA's decision will not end the risks to American consumers, not by a long way," says Dr. Knight. "Because cows affected by mad-cow disease commonly take years to display any signs at all, let alone becoming too sick to stand, and because the average American cow is slaughtered at around 2 years of age, the majority of mad cows will continue to pass undetected into the human food supply without a very thorough surveillance system."

"Places like Japan and Europe make even the new US standards look like a joke," Knight adds. In Europe, 1 in 4 cows meant for human consumption is tested; in Japan, all such cows are tested. Until now, just 1 in 1,700 cows have been tested in the United States.

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