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Paynesville Press - February 04, 2004

Beef prices rebound from discovery of Mad Cow

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Beef prices have rebounded in the month since the first case of Mad Cow disease was discovered in the United States.

Prices dropped sharply after a single heifer was found with the disease in Washington state in late December – from 90Ę to 70Ę per pound for live beef – said Greg Supan, assistant manager of the Central Livestock Association, which runs an auction in Albany.

But because U.S. consumers remained confident that the beef supply was safe, demand didn’t drop significantly, and prices returned to about 85Ę per pound last week, said Supan. The situation for farmers – and the industry – could have been a lot worse, he added.

Jack Hennen, a local beef producer and cattle trader, believes the quick price rebound was because the diseased cow was traced to Canada, where the disease was discovered last year, and explained as an isolated incident.

The only known way to spread Bovine Spongiform Encephalo-pathy, commonly known as Mad Cow disease, is through infected feed. The USDA banned animal by-products (which could spread the disease) from animal feed in 1997. Since the infected cow was from Canada and was older than the current USDA safeguards, it appears that the USDA safety precautions against Mad Cow disease have not been breached.

To further boost consumer confidence, the USDA has taken more precautions since December to ensure the safety of domestic beef. Now, downer cows (cows that stumble or are unable to stand) must be tested before their meat can enter the food supply.

Supan credited the sharp rebound, at least partially, on the quick action of the USDA. Soon after the disease was discovered, the USDA assured consumers that the case was isolated and there was little chance that infected meat made it into the nation’s food supply.

Hennen agreed that the nation’s food supply is safe from Mad Cow disease. Worldwide, many more people die from food poisoning – from handling food improperly – than from the human form of Mad Cow disease, Hennen pointed out.

Locally, people were more cautious about their beef consumption, but few quit buying beef.

According to Joel Burr, owner of Joel’s Family Foods, his customers never stopped buying beef and demand at his store never dropped noticeably. “People around here just eat more red meat than in other places,” he said.

Dave Rausch, the meat department manager at Paynesville SuperValu, reported that demand for beef dropped slightly in late December and January, but meat sales are always unpredictable at that time of the year. Sales were up for pork and poultry, he added.

Rausch did have a few customers ask about what precautions they should take when buying or preparing beef.

The scare from Mad Cow disease could even benefit some producers, said Hennen. Normally, countries that import beef, like Japan, prefer fatter cuts of beef, and beef to be sold within the United States needs to be lean. Now, the price of lean cattle (which typically earn less as it weighs less) is up about 10Ę – to $1.05 per pound – from December and producers are being offered premiums for lean cows, he said.

Because many countries that import beef from the United States banned beef from this country, however, the price for “fat cows” dropped about 10Ę per pound, said Hennen.

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