In recent weeks, the economy started to brighten, consumer spending began to turn up, and the food industry faced the dawn of a new year somewhat optimistic ... then WHAM! Like a piece of coal dropped into the Christmas stocking, mad cow surfaced again. Yet this time, it showed up in the United States -- a country some officials had said was an unlikely place for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to occur.
The news of BSE's U.S. arrival broke on Dec. 23, but that didn't stop one family from devouring a succulent standing-rib roast on Christmas day. That apparently was the attitude of many consumers who voiced some concern, but kept right on buying beef, according to SN's front-page news coverage in this week's issue. See related stories on Pages 4 and 6.
The important point is that confidence was not shattered, and many still believe meat is safe to eat -- at least for the moment. Ron Pearson, chairman of Hy-Vee, told me he personally went through their meat operation and quizzed Hy-Vee personnel about shopper reaction. "There is very little, if any, comment from customers," he said, and meat sales at Hy-Vee were not down.
"Most of the impact with mad cow has been with the media calling me," said Lori Willis, spokeswoman for Schnuck Markets. Meat sales at Schnuck's were not affected. She added, "People seem to understand that at this point in time, we aren't at risk from the situation that was discovered in Washington. They are educating themselves, and possibly the media and the industry are doing a better job of educating the public."
Such trust and confidence in the country's ability to secure the food chain also prevailed in past beef scares, although those didn't originate in this country. The orange alert on beef was raised in 2001 following outbreaks of mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease in Europe. Then, cattle in Texas suspected of eating contaminated feed that causes the disease were quarantined. At the time, the USDA decided to up the number of tests conducted on cattle for BSE from 5,000 to 12,500. This year, the USDA said it expects to test 40,000 cattle out of 96 million head.
However, many are now asking if this is enough, especially considering the deadly consequences of the disease infecting humans. The United States, the food industry and retailers can't afford to lose the trust consumers have in their food supply. Britain made the mistake of assuring its people that beef was safe to eat after the disease was first discovered there in 1986, and it was clearly not. It took the government nearly a decade to implement proper safety measures, but it came too late in preventing the disease from spreading.
Retailers most directly impacted in Western states acted correctly in being forthright with shoppers, posting recall notices, giving out origin-of-product information, and assuring the public that there was little risk.
As SN went to press, the USDA and other government officials were looking into additional safety measures. No doubt country-of-origin labeling will be given another look. Meanwhile, the food industry and retailers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Preserving the public's trust is as vital as improving the safety of the supply chain. Otherwise, more retailers will be investing in their own herds of cattle to make sure the beef they sell is safe, just as Yoke's Foods in Spokane, Wash., and others have done.