Mad Cow Weighs Down a $175 Billion Industry ; New Slaughterhouse Procedures, Such as Barring 'Downer' Cattle from the Food Supply, Aim to Keep Beef Sales Healthy

Article excerpt

The first weeks of the mad-cow scare in the US are rippling out through the nation's economy.

In one way or another - from the tons of pet food made of "meat byproducts" for nearly 140 million cats and dogs, to the $200 million in beef waiting aboard ships and in port freezers, to meat- processing and trucking companies sending workers home - the $175 billion industry affects many millions of Americans.

"Beef. It's What's for Dinner," proclaims the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and American eating habits bear that out. Some 78 million meals featuring beef are served every day, according to industry and government figures, and it's not just the pot roast or filet mignon. Beef extract made from the remains of slaughtered cows is in taco fillings, pizza toppings, and other popular foods as well.

Whether or not they're regular red-meat eaters, Americans are watching the situation closely. While two-thirds still think the beef supply is safe, according to a CNN-Time poll released over the weekend, a substantial 27 percent think otherwise, and they have either reduced their consumption of beef or stopped eating it altogether.

Officials think they know - but still aren't absolutely certain - where the Holstein slaughtered a month ago and later diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) came from, as well as how it contracted mad-cow disease. Most of the 81 cows in the suspect herd have yet to be tracked down. Livestock on a third farm in Washington State have now been quarantined. US Department of Agriculture officials hope to be able to account for the 20,000 pounds of recalled meat in the next few days.

But as new information on the case is revealed almost daily, it's unclear what the long-term economic impact will be.

"The US beef export market lost to mad-cow disease won't come back anytime soon," says Purdue University agricultural economist Philip Paarlberg. "We are going to have to assure our trading partners that the beef supply is safe, and that will take time."

"The mad-cow trade restrictions the United States imposed on Canada on May 20 remained rigid until Aug. 8, and even then the restrictions were only partially eased," says Dr. Paarlberg. "In the world's view, it's a North American beef market, not two separate countries."

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is moving quickly to address the issue. Among the new rules for beef production: "Downer" cattle (those injured or too sick to stand on their own) may not be used for human food; slaughtered animals inspected for mad-cow disease may not be processed for sale until test results are known; slaughterhouse techniques that can mix brain or spinal-cord tissue with muscle meat must not be used. …

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