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Meat Officials Say Discovery Shows Safety System Works

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Meat industry and agriculture groups rushed to assure consumers that the meat supply is safe and to downplay potential consequences following the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States.

Dan Murphy, spokesman for the American Meat Institute, said his office was flooded with calls from anxious meatpackers after Tuesday's announcement.

The institute told the meatpackers to emphasize the fact that no one got sick or died from an earlier Canadian case of mad cow and the fact that the cow in Washington was discovered shows that the U.S. food safety system works, he said.

"Still, this is not what they'd like to get under their trees two days before Christmas."

Steve Kay, editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly, an industry newsletter published in Petaluma, Calif., said "the biggest impact is going to be on our exports to Japan."

Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand halted imports of U.S. beef early today.

Kay said he expects the market "will be down the limit tomorrow" and probably the next two or three days as the impact becomes clear.

One key is what American consumers do, Kay said. "If they stop buying beef, which is highly unlikely, that will have a huge impact."

Azzaddine Azzam, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, agreed with Kay.

Unlike Canada, whose beef industry was devastated when mad cow disease was discovered there in May, the United States exports little of its beef, Azzam said.

"I'm not as pessimistic as some people," Azzam said. "You might see the markets get shaken up in the short term, but given the system checks we have, I really think the industry will weather this."

Allen Bright of Antioch, Neb., president of the Nebraska Cattlemen Association, said the discovery "concerns us greatly."

"But we take one step at a time from here and make sure we're doing everything right and make sure the food supply is safe. We want it as bad as anybody else," said Bright, who runs a small feedlot and breeds heifers.

The U.S. food safety system - its "firewall" - is the best in the world, he said. "The food supply is safe."

Kevin Coupe, editor of, a grocery industry news service, said he didn't expect a significant impact in supermarkets today. "I think the immediate reaction to this is going to be muted."

Coupe cautioned, however, that if there were repeated discoveries of mad cow disease and other meat-borne illnesses, combined with large meat recalls, consumer confidence would be affected.

"If you're going out to dinner tonight and your choice is fish, chicken or steak, which are you going to choose?" he asked.

Ruth Mitchell, spokeswoman for Hy-Vee Inc., said stores saw little consumer reaction to the discovery of mad cow in Canada, and she expected the fallout from Tuesday's announcement to be similarly small.

"The attitude on the part of most consumers is that we have a good system of food safety in place to take care of these things," she said.

(C) 2003 Omaha World-Herald. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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