Some choose chicken, but steak remains a staple

Sunday, January 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

A single case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy — or mad cow disease — has raised concerns about the safety of the country’s beef supply here and abroad.

In the wake of the BSE report, involving a dairy cow in Washington, the largest foreign buyers of American beef — Mexico, Japan and South Korea — have banned imports.

Ron Plain, an MU agricultural economist, said those countries should start buying American beef again, now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed that the infected cow entered the United States from Canada.

Plain isn’t sure, however, when the American public will put fears of mad cow disease behind it. “Customer reaction is a good proxy to determine the public’s confidence in the American regulatory system,” Plain said. “Surveys in the past have indicated that they do, but this will be a real-world test.”

Early reports from Columbia restaurants and grocery stores don’t indicate that local beef consumers have changed their buying and eating habits.

Beef is a staple at The Bull Pen Cafe, 2310 Business Loop 70 E. Owner and manager Jackie Cockrell said the restaurant has not seen any drop in sales since the mad cow report. Cockrell said the cafe’s customers have not lost their appetite for one particular delicacy — the brain sandwich. Scientists believe BSE infects the beef supply through cattle feed that includes brain and spinal matter.

Jeremy Piland, manager of Outback Steakhouse, a national chain that claims to be the largest buyer of beef in the world, said that while some customers have expressed reservations, sales haven’t changed much at the Columbia restaurant, at 1110 SW I-70 Drive.

“I’ve heard a few guests say they weren’t going to order steak, so they ordered a chicken dish instead,” Piland said.

The Columbia Outback gets its beef from Excel Meat Corp. in Wichita, Kan., Piland said. The restaurant has received assurances from its corporate offices that the company has not purchased tainted meat. A notice is posted in the restaurant’s kitchen so waiters and waitresses can assure customers that the beef they are serving is safe to eat.

Charlie Thurston, general manager of Patricia’s IGA, 900 N. Keene St., says he hasn’t seen any negative impact from the mad cow scare. Patricia’s is having a special on Kansas City strip steaks, he says, and sales have been as expected.

“Our boneless rib-eye roast sold very well over Christmas,” Thurston said. “I think if anything drops in price, it would probably be ground beef, but that’s purely speculation.”

Patricia’s also received a letter of assurance from its corporate headquarters, which included reminders that the United States has the safest food distribution in the world. The memo also pointed out that mad cow disease usually infects cattle over 30 months of age, and most market beef is less than 24 months old when slaughtered.

Thurston said he has confidence in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BSE testing program, which was recently changed to ban all non-walking cattle from the nation’s food chain.

“Maybe they haven’t tracked this as well as they should have,” Thurston said, “but I feel like the U.S. is probably farther ahead than other countries were that had the same problem.”

At Schnucks in the Forum Shopping Center, shoppers had different opinions about the threat of mad cow disease. Some said the chances of contracting the virus are greater than their desire to continue eating beef.

“I’m not going to eat beef anymore, and my kids aren’t either,” said Valsa Chandy, a former Columbia resident visiting from California.

“I don’t want to take the chance. I don’t think the American government is getting the truth out. So for now — chicken, chicken, chicken and fish.”

Others believe that the risks posed by a single infected cow aren’t worth giving up meat.

John Davis of St. Louis, who was also shopping at Schnucks, said there are more important things to worry about.

“You can’t live your life being afraid of everything,” he said. “I could buy a steak and then walk out the door and get hit by a car,” he said.

Plain, the MU economist, said that the ban on imports of American beef by some countries has increased the supply on the American market by 10 percent. Meanwhile, the price of beef has dropped by 15 percent to 20 percent. Plain said the market will return to normal as consumer fears about the safety of American beef continue to subside.

While he’s less sure of when the foreign markets will open again, personally, he’s going to take advantage of the current situation. “I’m looking forward to much cheaper beef prices,” Plain said, “and I’ll eat a lot more beef in January than I thought I would.”

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