Ranchers fear mad cow economics
December 30, 2003
“It is not possible for a mad cow disease breakout to occur in the United States like it did in Great Britain in the “90s,” Porter said.
Dr. Elizabeth Chandler, a New Castle-based veterinarian, traveled to Great Britain in 2001 to help treat animals during that country’s hoof-and-mouth disease epidemic. She said she saw first-hand what happens when a disease goes unchecked – and agreed with Porter that systems are in place in this country to keep a disease like mad cow safely isolated and away from the public.
“In the U.S., you have more of a risk of dying of malaria than you have of dying of mad cow disease,” said Chandler.
A small percentage of humans who get mad cow disease can die. But the U.S. beef industry touts its tight controls on beef processing.
“The knowledge we gained from the British, and the U.S. laws that are in place, prevents anything like that from happening in the United States,” Porter said.
“Wait and see’
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The discovery on Dec. 23 of one Holstein dairy cow who tested positive for the disease – the first case in U.S. history – has caused more economic woes than health concerns.
The diseased cow, traced back to Alberta, Canada, has compelled Japan and more than 24 other countries to boycott U.S. beef imports, and has caused the cattle futures market to become “erratic,” according to Porter.
“The U.S. exports 8 percent of its meat,” said Porter. “Out of that, these boycotts account for 90 percent of our export market.”
Porter said the diseased cow was an isolated case.
“The cow was born six months before the laws changed in Canada prohibiting cattle from consuming animal-based feed,” said Porter. “That’s what spread the disease.”
Until 1998, leftover beef and dairy cattle carcasses were ground up and mixed in with cattle feed. That practice led to cattle becoming infected with diseases like mad cow, which centers in their brains and spinal cords.
But new laws in the U.S. and later, in Canada, prohibiting this practice, have all but eliminated cattle transferring the disease to one another – and ultimately to people.
Still, those laws haven’t seemed to curbed the fears of some consumers. It has also caused volatility in the market.
Porter has 3,000 head of cattle that he grazes near New Castle in the summers and ships to Kansas to sell in the winter. He also invests in the cattle futures market.
“With my operation, I’m basically in wait-and-see mode,” Porter said. “It’s all I can do.”
According to Porter, the cattle futures market was “going down every day.”
“It’s cost me a bunch,” he said.
But as of Monday, the market appeared to be stabilizing.
“I’m watching it constantly,” he said. “It’s making everyone so nervous. It’s erratic.”
Still eating burgers
Cattle rancher Jim Bershenyi said he isn’t particularly affected by recent mad cow news. For generations, Bershenyi and his family have owned and operated their ranch on Four Mile Road just south of Glenwood Springs.
“We have between 80 and 100 head,” Bershenyi said. “All their feed – hay in the winter and grass in the summer – is grown right here. We’re isolated from any disease coming in from the outside.”
Skip Bell, owner and operator of The Pour House restaurant in downtown Carbondale, said sales of burgers, steaks and meat dishes haven’t diminished at all.
“I haven’t heard anything,” Bell said of any worries over consuming beef. “There hasn’t been any evidence of customers not ordering beef. I’m not seeing anyone going for a vegetarian dish if they really want a burger.”
Bell said he thinks part of the reason his customers are still ordering and eating beef is because The Pour House’s menu advertises that all its hamburger meat is raised locally.
“We get all that beef from the Nieslaniks,” Bell said of the venerable Carbondale cattle ranching family. “I know the source of our beef. And all our steaks are Colorado-raised. I talk to my suppliers to make sure of that.”
It took three phone calls to find someone at City Market who could openly speak about the recent mad cow situation.
But after consulting with City Market’s meat supervisor and contacting several Western Slope store managers, Rhonda Tolen, spokeswoman for City Market in Grand Junction, said it was business as usual with shoppers.
“Since this happened, we haven’t seen or heard of any decreases in beef sales,” Tolen said. “Buyers’ habits haven’t changed as far as we can tell.”
Still, Porter and Chandler said they hope the latest furor over the diseased cow settles and that the incident is perceived for what they say it is –an isolated case.
If it doesn’t, “this could put a lot of people out of business,” said Porter.
“Coming right on the heels of the drought,” Chandler added, “this could be very difficult for the family rancher. It’s a hard time to be a rancher. This may decide who stays and whose ranch turns into a housing development.”
Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518