Retailers and others connected with the meat industry gathered in Charlotte, N.C., last week for the Annual Meat Conference, an event sponsored by a number of leading trade associations.
How many guesses would it take to identify one of the chief topics of conversation and of workshop events? Maybe one? Yes, it's true: food safety, and more specifically whether the two livestock diseases ravaging European herds will arrive on these shores.
One workshop session, which forms the basis for a news article you'll find on Page 25, centered on what retailers should do about consumer perceptions of the diseases, namely bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot-and-mouth disease.
As was pointed out in the news article, these are two quite different diseases, but there's a perception that they are the same or similar. This observation is quite true. I've been asked on countless occasions about these diseases by otherwise knowledgeable people who are quite confused about these facts.
Either no distinction is made between the two diseases, or no distinction is made about their ability to cross the species barrier to humans. And there's not much realization about whether these diseases exist in this country. Maybe that's because the problem is below crisis level.
These are the facts: BSE presents a hazard to humans, and can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of certain cuts of meat. This disease has never been detected in this country, and the likelihood of it causing a cattle epidemic here is not high.
FMD is a horse of a different color. This disease hasn't been detected in this country in modern times, although there was an outbreak during the 1920s. But it's easily transmitted, and could get to this country.
FMD is a livestock disease. Countless experts have been quoted in this publication and a myriad of others to the effect that FMD will not infect humans. Now, it develops, that's not entirely true. Authorities in the United Kingdom said last week they were investigating three possible cases of the transmission of the disease to humans and that a confirmed human case occurred in 1966. This is certain to add to the confusion, even though the disease is quite mild in humans, and those who have contracted it came in close contact with infected livestock. So under ordinary circumstances, that won't happen, and an informed public won't be too concerned.
But is the public informed? Here's a synopsis of workshop findings about that, and what retailer response should be:
Surveys have shown that some 14% of the American public has trimmed meat-buying habits because of disease-related publicity. So, retailers should be prepared to inform their shoppers about the differences between the diseases, and that they aren't in this country.
What should retailers do to prepare for BSE, no matter how remote the possibility is that it will be found here? There's fairly little to do. The disease will either crop up here or it won't. And if that happens, it's too late since its incubation period is many years long. And it would simply decimate meat sales. One slight glimmer of hope is that muscle meats aren't associated with the transmission of the disease to humans, so some business might be salvaged. It might also be possible to switch meat consumers to other product categories, such as vegetable-based substitutes, in a bid to retain some business. But let's face it. At best, the effects would be horrendous.