Published November 20, 2014
The announcement that mad cow disease was found in a California cow drew a rapid response this week from the beleaguered American beef industry, which has been enduring one crisis after another for more than a year.
First, a severe drought in the Southwest cut cattle herd numbers to their lowest level in more than 60 years. Then an intense controversy erupted over a common type of filler known as "pink slime," hurting ground beef sales. The industry was just regaining its footing when the word of the mad cow discovery came Tuesday.
"They say things happen in threes, so hopefully this is the last one," said Buck Wehrbein, who manages a feeding operation in Mead, Neb.
The infected dairy cow, only the fourth ever discovered in the United States, was found as part of an Agriculture Department program that tests about 40,000 cows a year for the fatal brain disease. The animal apparently acquired the infection from a random mutation, not from eating infected cattle feed.
It was the first new case of mad cow disease in the U.S. since 2006 and came just as beef exports finally were recovering from the discovery of the disease in a cow imported from Canada in 2003. With billions of dollars at risk, the USDA and other government officials responded quickly, explaining consumers never were at risk because none of the animal's meat was bound for the food supply.
"It looks like that system is working, and for those of us in the business, that's a relief," Wehrbein said.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is fatal to cows and can cause a fatal human brain disease in people who eat tainted beef. The World Health Organization has said tests show humans cannot be infected by drinking milk from infected animals.
The swift response also reflected a desire to avoid a repeat of the pink slime scare, which erupted when consumers learned some ground meat contained scraps of beef treated with ammonium hydroxide.
Some people and institutions responded by rejecting the product known as "lean, finely textured beef." And by the time the industry responded, demand had fallen dramatically and production plants had closed.
"In retrospect, they didn't take that seriously and I think they underestimated the impact the media could have on consumer behavior," said Heather Jones, an industry analyst with BB&T Capital Markets. "I think they wanted to be all over this to quell any concerns domestically, and also you don't want to lose any of your export markets."
After the 2003 discovery, beef exports plunged from $3.6 billion that year to $809 million in 2004. On Tuesday, meat industry groups, food companies and the American Veterinary Medical Association quickly issued statements and updated their websites, seeking to reassure the public that the nation's meat supply is safe.
"Consumers should be reminded that the BSE agent is not contained in beef muscle such as cuts like steaks, roasts and hamburger," Tyson Foods, the second-largest beef producer in the U.S., said in a statement.
The industry's challenges come as beef exports are soaring, hitting a record $5.4 billion last year. The trend is continuing this year, with export value up about 10 to 12 percent, said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, a trade group.
Leading beef importers, including Canada, Mexico and Japan, responded quickly that the new mad cow case would have no effect on their imports. But the strongest reaction among trade partners came from those already skeptical about U.S. beef.
Indonesia, which previously said it wanted to reduce dependency on beef imports and ultimately become self-sufficient, on Thursday became the first country to suspend U.S. beef imports. Indonesia's Vice Agriculture Minister Rusman Heriawan said the country would lift the ban "as soon as the U.S. can assure us its dairy cows are free of mad cow disease."
Indonesia last year imported 20,000 tons of American beef, a tiny fraction of U.S. beef shipments
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said during a stopover in Singapore that the U.S. "absolutely respects the right of any country to protect the health of its citizens," but said there was no evidence any contaminated product entered the food chain.
"There is no reason for any consumer to be concerned about the consumption of U.S. beef," he said. "Thus, we would expect that Indonesia would quickly reopen its market for U.S. beef products."
There were no immediate signs bigger consumers would follow Indonesia's move.
In South Korea, the second- and third-largest grocery retailers had earlier pulled U.S. beef from their stores to calm worries among consumers. But one of them resumed sales within hours, citing a government announcement of increased inspections.
South Korea is the fourth-largest importer of American beef. It bought $563 million worth last year.
In Taiwan, the legislature has postponed indefinitely a planned discussion on American beef. Under pressure from Washington, recently re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou has been seeking to break a logjam on the long-running dispute.
Ma, however, is caught between growing popular opposition to U.S. beef and a parallel desire not to endanger the resumption of stalled trade talks, seen as crucial to keeping up the island's competitive edge in global trade.
The Chinese government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a consultant said the BSE discovery is likely to push the government toward establishing strict criteria on American beef. But that's only if China resumes importing the beef at all.
China imposed a ban on American beef after the 2003 case. Talks on the issue resumed in 2010, with the latest round occurring in February 2011.
Demand for beef in China has increased from 5.6 million tons in 2005 to 6.5 million tons last year, according to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. In recent years, the Chinese have eaten more beef than the nation can produce, and 10,000 to 60,000 tons of beef have been imported primarily from Australia, Uruguay and Brazil.
Live cattle futures markets plummeted Tuesday, even before the Agriculture Department's announcement of the mad cow discovery, but they recovered Wednesday as it became clearer that exports would not take a significant hit.
"The only two things that move the market are fear and greed, and fear moved it yesterday, but it's coming back," said cattle rancher Bill Donald, of Melville, Mont.
The quick response from the industry and the government helped, he said.
"The main thing with consumers is just to reassure them of the safety of our product and all the different firewalls we have in place," he said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong in Beijing, Peter Enav in Taiwan, Robert Gilles in Toronto, Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.