- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Where's the beef?
A lot of it is on America's dinner tables.
Americans spent a record $52 billion on red meat in 2000 and ate, on average, 70 pounds of it. Concern about livestock diseases in Europe has grown in recent weeks, but Americans haven't put aside the craving for a juicy T-bone steak, or even the ubiquitous cheeseburger.
"I have great faith in the [U.S. Department of Agriculture]," says Gordon Harvey, 65, of Arlington, who bought bacon, a pork roast and a steak at the bustling Eastern Market in the District. Then he headed for the poultry counter.
"I wouldn't hesitate to stop buying meat altogether if I thought it was dangerous," he says.
Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman says there are no signs that Americans are shunning beef, despite confusing foot-and-mouth disease, which does not infect humans, with the rarer and more dangerous mad cow disease, a form of which can infect humans.
Mad cow disease has never been found in the United States. But inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture seized hundreds of imported sheep from two Vermont farms last week the first such seizure of U.S. farm animals fearing they may be infected with a version of mad cow.
Inspectors are watching more than two dozen imported cows in Minnesota, Texas and Vermont for signs of the disease, which is linked to a brain-wasting illness in humans.
Foot-and-mouth disease, sometimes called hoof-and-mouth, is harmless to humans but can be spread by them, and was last reported in the United States in 1929.
Unless one of those diseases hits the United States, Americans seem unlikely to change their beef-eating habits.
"That fact is, it's not here," says Chuck Levitt, a meat analyst with Alaron Trading Corp. of Chicago. "The American people by and large still feel we have the safest food supply on the planet, and by and large we do."
Farmers fear the economic consequences of foot-and-mouth more than the disease itself, as infected pigs, sheep and cows lose their appetite and stop growing and producing milk.
The fast-spreading disease struck Britain in mid-February and has touched France, the Netherlands and Ireland. Argentina is contending with a new outbreak.
Britain has lost $240 million, and the toll in lost trade and livestock which are being destroyed to contain the spread could approach $1 billion.
The United States has barred meat imports from 15 European countries and Argentina until the outbreak is controlled. U.S. consumers could pay higher beef prices at neighborhood butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants as a result.
"If England doesn't have any meat, they're going to have to buy it from somewhere," says Tony Heath, owner of Quality Cash Market in Concord, N.H. "They're probably going to buy it from us, and we have just so much, so all prices will rise because of the limited supply."
Chuck Boppell, president and chief executive officer of the Sizzler chain of steakhouse restaurants says, "We're seeing the prices on the futures market just go crazy."
Contracts for certain cuts of beef, for future delivery, have risen by half, he says.
This comes as beef consumption has been rising after years of decline.
The $52 billion spent on beef last year was up from $48.7 billion in 1999, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says. American beef consumption, 70 pounds per person last year, has reflected steady but modest increases since 1993, when consumption fell to 65.1 pounds. Even so, Americans ate more chicken last year, 82.1 pounds.
Even the recall last year of nearly 3 million pounds of ground beef and beef products because of suspected contamination by E. coli and listeria bacteria didn't seem to affect U.S. beef-eating habits, Mr. Levitt says.
He predicts the jittery economy and rising fuel prices would influence beef consumption more than the outbreaks of animal disease overseas.
Still, mad cow disease worries people, with nearly two-thirds of Americans concerned about it becoming a problem in the United States, as reflected in a new USA Today-CNN poll taken by Gallup.
"I haven't considered it, but if I traveled to other places I'd be concerned about it," says Sylvester Copeland, 64, an Army veteran who enjoys a good "half smoke" sausage. He bought six at Eastern Market, a short walk from his senior citizens home.
Comparing meat prices at the D.C. market, Brenda Bunting of Haleiwa, Hawaii, says she will worry when, or if, the disease is confirmed in the United States.
"Then I will think it's only a matter of time before it reaches me in Hawaii."


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