RETAILERS PRIMED TO RESUME BEEF SALES

WASHINGTON -- Retailers got back to the business of selling beef to reassured customers after the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded an intense, seven-week probe into the country's first confirmed case of mad cow disease.Meat department executives contacted by SN said they're satisfied the investigation was handled thoroughly."I think the USDA has done an excellent job in pursuing this issue,

WASHINGTON -- Retailers got back to the business of selling beef to reassured customers after the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded an intense, seven-week probe into the country's first confirmed case of mad cow disease.

Meat department executives contacted by SN said they're satisfied the investigation was handled thoroughly.

"I think the USDA has done an excellent job in pursuing this issue, and once again demonstrates why the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world," said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for perishable foods, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. "Not only did they work closely with the actual producers of products, but with Canadian officials as well."

Government agencies and trade associations issued daily updates on the status of the probe, and retailers themselves posted informational signs and stood ready to answer consumer questions. While there were scattered reports of meat products returned to supermarkets and a drop in sales, initial declines have since largely recovered, retailers told SN.

"It just demonstrates how fragile the consumer psyche is with respect to food safety and security," Peterson added. "Any time the public has a shred of doubt about the safety of a product, it's going to cause concern."

Ken Chapin, director of meat and seafood at Yoke's Foods, Spokane, Wash., said now that the government has wrapped up its investigation, consumers should feel even more confident in the meat supply.

"I hope it sends a message we've done all that we can," he said. "They found all they could. I think it's time to quit talking about it every day."

Yoke's headquarters is two hours from the Washington state farm where the infected Holstein was slaughtered.

Coincidentally, Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, introduced its own brand of fresh beef this month, and has rolled it out to all its stores across the United States, including its Acme and Jewel-Osco divisions based in Malvern, Pa., and Chicago, respectively. The new brand offers customers a range of roasts and steaks that the chain guarantees to meet customers' expectations for tenderness, juiciness and flavor, and the retail price has not been moved up, officials said.

"Our current suppliers and new suppliers have to meet stricter standards, and those standards will match up with the government's new standards that will be coming out in the next month or two. In the meantime, the double guarantee is what we think will mean a lot to our customers," Karianne Cole, an Albertsons spokeswoman, told SN last week.

Tests on 28 of the infected Holstein's 80 herdmates imported from Canada in 2001, and nearly 150 other cattle of interest to investigators, showed no signs of the disease. The whereabouts of the other herdmates remain unknown, though the chances of them being infected are extremely small, officials said. Still, an international panel of experts that convened to review the nation's safeguards has stated infected cattle likely exist in the United States.