- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

Washington area restaurateurs say the number of diners ordering beef has held steady, and in some cases increased, despite the first confirmed case of mad cow disease in the United States.

Takeout orders at Steak Express Charbroil, a Rockville steak-dinner delivery store, rose 15 percent last week to 23,000. The company normally has 20,000 weekly orders, manager Sean Daftari said.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought we were going to die,” after the federal government reported on Dec. 23 that a Holstein on a Washington state dairy farm had been infected with mad cow disease, Mr. Daftari said.

The disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, is a chronic, degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system of cattle. It has been linked to a fatal brain disease in humans and has disrupted international cattle trade in affected nations like Britain and Canada.

Mr. Daftari credited better consumer education for the lack of a beef scare in the Mid-Atlantic. “I think people are more educated and the media didn’t scare them,” he said.

Sam & Harry’s Restaurant Holdings’ four steakhouses in the Washington area had higher New Year’s Day sales than in the past three years, said Michael Sternberg, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Vienna chain.

“I think people know that they’re not going to get BSE because we’re not serving nerve tissue,” or parts of the cow where the disease is spread, Mr. Sternberg said.

Restaurant manager Dorothy Burke said she was amazed to see a family of five order large T-bone lunches Jan. 1 at the Moose Creek Steakhouse at the College Park, Md., Holiday Inn.

“This is now our slow season, but people are still coming in and most are ordering beef,” Ms. Burke said.

No customers in the last week have mentioned the mad cow issue when ordering beef entrees, Ms. Burke said, adding: “We certainly aren’t mentioning it to them either.”

While Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a national restaurant chain with four locations in the D.C. metropolitan area, has received some calls from consumers, the chain had slightly higher sales on Jan. 1 than in the previous year, spokeswoman Deborah Hinson said.

“There has been no big drop in customer traffic and we haven’t changed the percentage of beef entrees on the menu. I think that’s the biggest testimonial that customers aren’t afraid,” Ms. Hinson said.

Even some supermarkets have reported a rise in meat sales. Whole Foods Market Inc., an Austin, Texas, natural-foods supermarket, had record meat sales in the past two weeks because of safety standards the company uses for its beef products, according to Bloomberg News.

The steady sales follow a national report by Cattle-Fax, a Denver beef-industry research firm, that said U.S. beef sales were not greatly affected after the first mad cow case was discovered last month in an infected Holstein in Washington state.

President Bush this week urged Americans to be comfortable with eating beef while promising changes to safeguard cattle production.

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