Why now, mad cow?

Monday, January 5, 2004

Why now, Mad Cow? This new twist to an old saying sums up the severe, far-reaching impact of a single, isolated case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States.

Why did it happen now? Why was the effect so immediate? How come the pulldown on prices was so overwhelming?

Because, in this country, the safety of the food supply is tremendously important. Those that produce the beef (the cattle industry) and those that eat the beef (the supermarket and restaurant meat customers) demand an absolute commitment to quality and safety.

Cattlemen are paying a terrific price, with the cost per pound of beef dropping up to 30 cents since the Mad Cow report sent shock waves through the U.S. Before the news broke two weeks ago, stockgrowers and cattle feeders around the nation, including this area, were receiving prices hovering close to $100 per hundredweight. That makes it easy to figure. For a steer weighing a 1,000 pounds, that meant a 1,000 dollars, giving cattlemen one of their best opportunities for profit in years.

But -- in an industry used to rapid rises and dramatic drops -- the high prices didn't last nearly long enough, dragged down overnight by the Mad Cow scare.

In Nebraska, which leads the nation in commercial livestock slaughter, the drop in prices could end up costing the state's beef industry more than $1 billion.

And, with a significant number of the state's 5,100 cattle feeders located in Southwest Nebraska, the effect on this area alone could stretch into the tens of millions of dollars.

So how are cattlemen holding up after the devastating drop in prices? Better than you might expect. Because of the higher prices of recent weeks, the cattlemen have a little cushion to help them get by until prices start moving up again, as analysts -- inside and outside the industry -- are predicting.

Second, as is always the case of crises, the emergency is speeding up steps to help ensure the safety of the nation's beef supply, including an animal identification program ordered to go into effect by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In this process, the Omaha World-Herald reports, "Animals will be tagged if they are relocated, and the tag numbers entered into a national database along with each move, say, from farm to farm or to a feedlot or livestock market."

Those who eat beef can also be reassured by the lead taken by the United States in stopping the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, the full, official name of Mad Cow Disease. Following the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in England, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997 placed a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cattle. According to the beef industry, that is a "fire wall" which will prevent the spread of BSE (Mad Cow Disease) if it is present in the United States.

The U.S. prides itself on a safe, high quality food supply. The Mad Cow scare is taking an unfair toll on the beef industry, but it's good to know that all possible is being done to ensure the safety of the nation's -- and world's -- consumers.

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