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Mad cow scare has no effect locally

by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

While millions across the country celebrated Christmas by unwrapping presents, American cattle farmers were presented with the unsettling news images of Japanese grocers tossing out packages of American beef by the caseload over the holidays — a reaction to the United States’ first confirmed case of “mad cow” disease.

Platte County cattle farmer Kevin Rawlings of Dearborn initially feared the worst.

“The first thing I thought was that it was going to be devastating to the butchers,” Rawlings said. “But then, after a while, I reconsidered that and thought about how reasonable American people can be, especially after 9-11. I anticipate they’ll be a downturn in the short-term as the market reacts and it’ll be bad for anybody who wants to sell in the near future, but I’m sure we’ll come out of this ok.”

In a country that consumes almost 90% of the beef it produces and is virtually synonymous with the cheeseburger, America’s near one million cattle farmers certainly hope he is right. Missouri, the second largest beef producing state in the nation (second only to Texas and first in purebred cattle) has nearly 67,000 farms with beef or dairy cattle.

In Platte County alone, beef cattle number almost 8,000 — a herd that was valued at approximately $9.6 million before the scare.

The scare being referenced by the world’s media began on Dec. 9, when a Washington state cow was observed to be nonambulatory (a “downer”) prior to slaughter. Then, as part of the USDA’s targeted surveillance program for BSE, samples were taken from the animal and sent to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa, for testing. There the cow tested positive for BSE, a diagnosis that was confirmed by the BSE World Reference Lab in Weybridge, England on Christmas day.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal disease that causes progressive neurological degeneration in cattle. BSE is believed to be the primary cause of a variant type of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans. Much like BSE, vCJD is an incurable and fatal degenerative brain disorder that is very difficult to diagnose.

So far, Platte County beef consumers seem to echo Rawling’s appraisal of the situation.

“We haven’t noticed any difference in our sales,” said Virginia Glick, manager of Leo’s Country Mart in Platte City. “The beef that we get is from Midwest cattle and fortunately, we haven’t had any problems.”

Area fast food employees also reported no change in sales, echoing what their national spokespersons were telling the press on Monday. Aside from the occasional overheard comment and shrug of the shoulders, holiday travelers in KCI Airport seemed largely unfazed as CNN’s airport network aired the news of the discovery on Dec. 23.

Such a reaction is exactly what Brent Bryant, executive vice-president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association in Colombia, MO, is hoping for.

“With the single incident found in Washington state with a Canadian cow, our concern is getting sound, science-based information into the hands of the media and the consumer to reassure them that the beef supply is safe,” Bryant told The Landmark.

“The USDA should be commended for their aggressive pursuit of the situation over the holidays. They’ve done an excellent job implementing the firewall.”

The firewall, according to officials, includes aggressive surveillance of “downer” cows, bans on imports of beef with BSE incidents and a ban on mammal-based feed which is suspected to cause the disease. Missouri’s Bureau of Feed and Seed has been inspecting all feed manufacturers, distributors and retail feed establishments since 1998 and the state’s animal health officials test about 100 brains from at-risk animals every month.

Bryant said that Missouri cattle farmers also have something more personal at stake when it comes to safety: personal pride.

“Not only is it the goal of Missouri farmers to provide safe beef to the USA and the world, they also feed it to their own families,” Bryant said.

“Consumers understand that this is an isolated incident and they’re continuing to eat great beef throughout the holidays.”