Special Report

Having a Cow

A hysteria-driven falling export market will mean cheaper beef at home. Yum.

By 1.13.04

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SEATTLE -- By now, those of us with televisions have seen the grainy BBC photos of the wobbly legged cow. It's a pathetic sight to even the most hardened steak lover, a horror story for ranchers everywhere, and, for the average nervous American, a threat to personal health and safety.

In the wake of the discovery that a cow in eastern Washington was infected with BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, thousands of Washington state residents flooded the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, reporting their consumption of possibly infected meat, and asking if they were at risk of getting ill, or worse.

But personal safety is really not the issue here. Because of U.S. eating habits, I'm more at risk of being mugged by my 94-year old neighbor lady than contracting Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, which eating BSE infected food can cause. The ranchers were quick to quarantine the effected cows and do away with them. Further, much of the blame can legitimately be placed on Canada for allowing horrible feeding practices. But the discovery of infected cattle couldn't come at a worse time for U.S. cattle growers and related industries.

Asia is the largest foreign consumer of American beef, and Japan has the most voracious appetite for red meat. In response to this Mad Cow scare, the Japanese have closed their markets to U.S. beef. That the problem originated in Canada is irrelevant to Japanese health bureaucrats. It was slaughtered, drenched in A-1 sauce, and eaten here. In the eyes of much of the world, that makes it our problem.

HOW THIS ALL PLAYS OUT depends to a depressing degree upon the reactions of our own health authorities. However, signs so far are not all bad. "The USDA got right on the problem," says Thomas Wahl, director of Washington State University's international marketing program. "What happens from this point forward is what will make or break the beef industry."

The newly imposed regulations should help ease public concerns about tainted beef, but at a price. Electronic ear tags, for instance, which record the birthplace and movements of each cow, will run about $5 a head. Wahl predicts that this and other regulations will cost the industry enough to put marginal producers out of business, but he argues that the damage control benefits, both at home and abroad, will outweigh the costs.

Levis Kochin, an economist from the University of Washington, takes the counter-intuitive position that the recent BSE scare will actually make the U.S. beef industry stronger. Very little non-exportable beef will be thrown out, he says. Rather, "domestic beef prices will fall until U.S. beef consumption rises enough for U.S consumers to eat what is not exported," which could spur demand for beef even after the crisis has abated.

Of course, the fate of much more than beef hinges on handling future Mad Cow scares. Despite marketing campaigns to pass it off as the other white meat, pork will still feel the impact of any fears over infected beef. Also affected, surprisingly, are potato and onion growers, because it is a common practice to cook French fries and onion rings in beef tallow before shipping them overseas.

It may be a shame that small producers are going to be given a bum steer by new regulations over what is a remarkably overrated, media-hyped risk. But international markets, guarded by jittery health bureaucrats, have little tolerance for even manageable risks. One is tempted to tell them not to have a cow, but the pun is just too much.

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About the Author

Heather Roscoe writes from Washington state.