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Where's the beef safety regulation? BSE becomes political hot potato: one sick cow has government and industry rushing to implement damage control. More than 30 countries bar imports of US beef, but domestic consumption so far is unaffected.

Maybe there will never be another case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States. Maybe there will never be another case in Canada, where the infected cow came from. But one is thing for sure: Mad Cow Disease has become a national and international political football.

It was too early at press time to judge the long-term effects of the outbreak. There doesn't seem to have been any immediate drop in domestic beef consumption, but with over 30 countries--among them top markets like Japan and Korea--banning US beef, the export trade has been hard hit, and shipments intended for the Pacific Rim have been piling up at West Coast ports. In Australia, the government even pressed for the destruction of 350 cattle previously shipped from the US.

Tyson Foods, which exported $1.7 billion worth of beef last year, announced Jan. 7 that it was scaling down production at 11 beef plants in the US on account of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) incident. (Tyson had cut production earlier last year in response to a BSE incident in Canada, which had led the US itself and other coounties to ban Canadian beef. The infected cow in that case was in Alberta--the same province where the one in the US was born.).

The farm in Washington state where a Holstein cow failed a BSE test was immediately quarantined as the $40 billion dollar a year US industry embarked on a damage control exercise. Stock in fast food chain operator McDonald's had quickly plunged, evidently on fears that consumers would shun Big Macs, but they recovered a few days later. Fear of the disease has brought economic ruin on beef industries in Europe and Canada. If Mad Cow Disease stays in the news, the publicity could have a cummulative negative effect on domestic sales in the US.

Fighting Political Fallout

US Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said the slaughtered cow was screened earlier last month and any diseased parts were removed before they could enter the food supply and infect humans. But there were some complaints, by Democrats like New York Senator Charles Schumer, that the US hasn't been as aggressive as Europe in screening for the disease. Democrats, seeing a potential campaign issue, put the blame on President George W. Bush as well as the beef industry for failing to adequately protect the public. Bush responded by making a show of eating beef, and industry groups were suddenly all in favor of more stringent safety measures.

"We remain confident in the safety of our food supply," Veneman declared at a hastily convened news conference. Officials were then still trying to trace how the animal contracted the disease (evidently front feed it got as a calf, before feed with spinal cord material was banned, it later developed) and where its meat went. "Even though the risk to human health is minimal, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution," she said.

Mad cow disease eats holes in the brains of cattle. It sprang up in Britain in 1986 and spread through countries in Europe and Asia, prompting massive destruction of herds and decimating the European beef industry. A form of mad cow disease can be contracted by humans if they eat infected beef. The human form of mad cow disease so far has killed 143 people in Britain and 10 elsewhere, none in the United States--although there is one case of a young woman living in the US who contracted it when she lived in Britain.

Efforts by the government to strengthen protection of the public against Mad Cow Disease won support from both the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the American Meat Institute (AMI) within a week after the case in Washington made headlines.

Additionally, the AMI announced that the AMI Foundation would hold a "BSE Briefing" Feb. 3 to "provide a forum for discussion and analysis of what is arguably the most challenging issue ever to confront the US beef industry."

The two industry groups spoke out after the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) took several steps--including a ban on slaughtering of so-called "Downers" (cattle too sick to stand up) and a more aggressive inspection program.

The USDA "has fortified the firewalls protecting the public against exposure to meat from cattle with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease," said Tim Hammonds, president and ceo of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), commenting on new BSE safeguards. The FMI represents food retailers and wholesalers.

"It is understandable and prudent for USDA [US Department of Agriculture] to review our nation's regulatory firewalls that protect against BSE," agreed AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. "The new measures are very aggressive and indeed extraordinary measures that go well beyond international standards in an effort to protect cattle herds and to bolster consumer confidence in beef safety."

The proposed new USDA regimen includes:

* A ban on Specified Risk Materials (SRMs): USDA will implement a ban on SRMs similar to that implemented by the Canadian government. This is modeled after the more extreme precautions required in European countries that suffered from serious and significant outbreaks of BSE during the 1990s.

* Increased BSE surveillance: USDA plans to increase its BSE surveillance of live animals. Existing surveillance exceeds international standards by more than 40 times, the AMI said, but expanded surveillance will enhance detection capabilities and provide even greater reassurances that BSE will be detected if present in US herds.

* Establishment of a national animal ID system: We applaud this announcement because it will dramatically enhance animal disease investigations. AMI has a policy in place supporting mandatory animal traceability.

* New restrictions on meat derived by advanced meat recovery.

* Spinal cord, which is currently prohibited, and dorsal root ganglia will be prohibited in meat derived by advanced meat recovery equipment.

* Mandatory test-and-hold: USDA will require that beef carcasses and beef products from animals undergoing BSE testing must be withheld from the food supply pending test results.

* Ban on non-ambulatory livestock for human consumption.

* Ban on air injection stunning: Air-injected stunners are no longer manufactured. AMI had called upon its members to discontinue use of these stunners more than five years ago and to its knowledge, no such equipment is in use in plants.

Officials at the USDA hosted an interagency meeting with industry officials in Washington, D.C., Jan. 5. One of the goals, they said, was to determine the best strategy to continue to include non-ambulatory livestock in the department's BSE surveillance program. Given the department's announced ban on all such animals from the human food chain, they are not likely to be transported to packing plants for processing.

During a teleconference a few days earlier, Ron DeHaven, USDA's chief veterinary officer, responded several times to media questions regarding USDA's plans to ramp up its BSE surveillance numbers to approximately 38,000, nearly twice the level tested in 2003. "We will find a way to do that," DeHaven replied, noting that USDA will send its veterinarians and field staff to rendering plants and onto dairy farms, as one likely strategy.

But critics are calling for testing of all animals, as is done in Europe and elsewhere. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture announced Jan. 7 that it was sending a delegation to investigate US measures to contain BSE, but complained beforehand that US safeguards don't meet Japanese standards. The Trade Ministry is also pleading Japan's case in the US.

Not everyone in the US business community was joining the choir in defending the beef industry. Business Week ran an editorial, "A Bum Steer on Mad Cow Disease," which accused the industry and the USDA of still being complacent. BSE could be spread by feeding cattle blood to cattle, which isn't banned. Moreover, the magazine said, cattle by-products are often fed to poultry, and poultry droppings mixed with grain for cattle feed.

"Our food supply may never be completely safe until all beef is tested," Business Week commented. "The USDA says it's considering additional testing. The beef industry isn't yet convinced it needs to change, though so far it hasn't approved new [European style] tests that return results in a few hours, rather than the eight days or more that current tests take. 'We believe it's a waste of resources to test every animal,' says Gary Weber; executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattleman's Beef Association. That's a weak argument. Think about it this way: Even though the risks of human illness are slight, a few cents per pound isn't a high cost for assurance that the steak on our dinner tables isn't going to kill us."

Quorn Still Under Fire in US For Alleged "Bad Reactions"

A US consumer watchdog is intensifying its campaign to have the meat substitute, Quorn, taken off the market, despite Britain's Food Standards Agency's (FSA) rejection of claims that it is unsafe.

The Center for Science in the Public interest (CSPI) is continuing to press the US Food and Drug Administration (USDA) to ban the product, citing allergic: reactions involving nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

CSPI's website contains claims from more than 550 Americans and Britons that Quorn made them ill. Now, 11 of them have asked natural-foods supermarket Whole Foods to ban the product or post warning signs.

UK manufacturer Marlow Foods said the FSA confirmed intolerance reports to mycoprotein (Quorn's key ingredient) are much lower than for many common foods such as shellfish, dairy, and soy. It says CSPI's examples are not clinical trials, but anecdotal and added that natural foods retailer Whole Foods still stocks Quorn and is "100% behind the brand."

King Kold Wins First Prizes At New York Kosher Show

King Kold Frozen Foods, Chicago, Illinois maker of King Kold and Ratner's Kosher foods, won two awards at the recent Kosherfest in New York: Best Tasting New Product for Ratner's Mini Veggie Pancakes and Best New Packaging Design for Ratner's Potato Pancakes.

Votes were cast by a panel comprised of executives from companies such as A&P and Kehe Foods, as well as a syndicated food columnist and chair of American Academy of Chefs. Some 2,500 new kosher items were eligible for awards.

"What was a $35 billion industry back in 1994 has grown to $165 billion today," said Michael Hahn, president of King Kold. "Much of the jump is due to non-Jewish consumers' altering their shopping list. We are proud to have been recognized for packaging design and for taste as these two features are very important to today's consumer."

Recently published consumer research findings by Mintel show that 28% of respondents have purchased kosher food at one time or another. They gave a number of reasons, ranging from religion to taste preference. While 35% of those buying kosher food products said they liked the taste better, 16% did so "because of the guidelines under which they were produced"--namely, the Jewish kashrut laws.

King Kold, now in its fiftieth year of business, makes blintzes, potato pancakes, pirogies, soups, pizzas and veggie grilliers. King Kold and Ratner's brands are sold in retail stores as well as to the foodservice segment.
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Title Annotation:Frozen Foods in North America
Comment:Where's the beef safety regulation? BSE becomes political hot potato: one sick cow has government and industry rushing to implement damage control.
Author:Pierce, J.J.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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