Jan. 16--Twenty years ago, Americans were asking, "Where's the beef?" after a hit ad campaign by Wendy's fast-food restaurants. Now they're asking, "Where's the beef from?" "We're selling about the same," said Sandra Perazza, owner of Carniceria Argentina in South Miami-Dade. "But a lot of people are asking for Uruguayan beef." They're requesting Nicaraguan meat, too, said Susel Molina, co-owner of El Novillete, a Nicaraguan butcher's shop in Sweetwater. "They prefer that." Since a Holstein was discovered with the brain-withering disease in Washington state last month, South Florida meat retailers say sales of American beef are growing a little lean, but many customers continue to chow on cow.
Especially the imported kind. Butcher shops peddling meat from Uruguay, Australia and other foreign fields report a slight increase in demand while their U.S. meat languishes longer in the refrigerator case.
Some carnivores are turning to kosher cuts, heartened by the Judaic tradition of eschewing visibly sick animals. Mad-cow-infected and other ill cattle often cannot stand, thus easily distinguishing them from their healthy bovine brethren in the abattoir pen.
Rubindale Kosher Meats in Kendall, for one, reported seeing some new nonkosher clients since the mad cow scare broke.
Goldstein & Sons Kosher Meats in Miami Beach is also fielding more inquiries.
"Now that mad cow is in the U.S., people are scared," proprietor Joe Goldstein said.
South Florida appears to be following the general trend across the country -- demand for meat is holding up, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Colorado.
That has brought a huge sigh of relief to the quaking U.S. beef industry. Its counterparts in Britain and Europe were devastated in the 1990s by a widespread outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which is caught by cattle that eat feed made from infected animal parts. Humans catch the fatal illness by consuming products made from diseased cows.
Luckily for American meat producers, the aftermath of a single infected dairy cow is following the trend experienced in Canada, where the domestic beef market remained healthy despite the emergence of the disease last May.
"Awareness [of the mad cow discovery] is very high, but demand is remaining relatively unaffected," said Michelle Peterson, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"Last week, we had the largest weekly volume in wholesale since 1990." Overseas is another story. Thirty-one countries have banned American beef, meaning that the roughly 10 percent of U.S. meat destined for export is starting to flood the domestic market.
That's already driving down wholesale prices, which have plunged 15 percent so far, Peterson said.
"We're trying to absorb that saturation," she said.
Lower prices may help fortify retail meat sales and lure back those steak fans who have switched allegiance to pork, chicken and other meats.
Kemmerer Sales of Miami, which sells poultry, pork and seafood to Latin America, as well as to local cruise lines and retailers, has seen a roughly 15 percent boost in requests for nonbeef products in recent weeks, said Tom Witherington, one of three brothers who run the business.
He has also seen new import regulations, even for nonbeef meats.
"We're having to get new certification that states where the stuff is from and that there's no beef in the container," Witherington said.
The national pork and poultry industries say they have not seen a huge jump in demand so far, but countries that are not accepting U.S. beef could start consuming more imported pork.
"We're definitely watching that very closely," said Kara Flynn, spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council.
The beef industry is also closely watching the flow of meat coming into the United States.
The U.S. buys about 10 percent of its beef abroad, principally from Australia and New Zealand.
Those countries and others feed their cattle grass and grain and are considered at low risk for a BSE outbreak.
So far, imports have not spiked, industry officials reported, and they may well go down. Australia and New Zealand are also top sellers to big beef importers Japan and South Korea, which will need more meat to fill the void from the now-outlawed U.S. imports.
That could stretch the capacity of the Down Under countries and result in some world supply volatility, according to a report by Cattle-Fax, an industry research organization in Colorado.
The United States restricts imports from one big producer -- Argentina -- because of foot-and-mouth disease in a cattle-farming area in that country, renowned for its steak-devouring appetite.
So far, the biggest effect of the mad cow scare, those in the industry say, is that beef has become a meaty issue for retailers and consumers alike.
Merhez Fuad, proprietor of Almarwa Halal Markets in Fort Lauderdale, flew in Australian cuts to replace American in an effort to beef up sales, but they were too expensive and didn't go over well with customers.
"I'm stuck with a lot of beef," he said. "But I'm selling a lot of lamb, which is from Australia, and chicken."
To see more of The Miami Herald -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.
(c) 2004, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.