Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Americans staying calm about beef


It will take more than a single Holstein with mad cow disease to keep consumers like Ralph Flores from eating their beloved beef.

"It would take a major epidemic," Flores said as he bought beef sausage at Paulina Market, a North Side butcher shop where beef sales never faltered until a blast of winter weather hit the city this week.

More than two weeks since the emergence of the first case of mad cow in this country, prompting a widespread ban on US beef overseas, the beef industry's worst fears have not been realized. There's been no evidence the disease has spread, and Americans have stood steadfast to their steaks.

"You can't stop living," said Karl Wagoner as he polished off a burger recently in Trenton, New Jersey.

Burger chains report no impact on sales and investors have returned to beef-related stocks after an initial selloff, even sending McDonald's higher than it was before the mad cow news broke Dec. 23.

On Friday, US agricultural officials said 129 dairy cows from a second quarantined herd with ties to the Washington state cow with mad cow disease will be killed.

Consumer confidence in US beef remains high and statistically unchanged from September, according to a survey conducted Dec. 29 to Dec. 30 by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Eighty-nine percent of the 1,001 non-vegetarian adults interviewed in person and by phone said they were confident US beef was safe from mad cow disease and 75 percent said they were eating as much beef as a month earlier -- the largest percentages in the seven years the tracking survey has been taken. The margin of error of the poll was plus or minus 3 percent.

So where's the beef panic?

Industry observers and crisis management experts say the alarming news of Dec. 23 hasn't developed into a full-blown scare because consumers quickly understood that the individual risk to humans remained remote.

The industry also benefited from strong public esteem for beef, which public-relations executive Richard Laermer puts just a step below apple pie on the US food chain.

"Americans and hamburgers -- that's a serious, serious relationship," said Laermer, head of RLM Public Relations Inc in New York and Los Angeles. "People are not going to give up hamburgers as easily as they'd give up, say, Perrier or Tylenol."

The same goes for hot dogs, another beef icon.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a threat because scientists say humans can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from consuming beef products contaminated with BSE. But even that link has been challenged, and experts say the risk to individual consumers is minuscule regardless.

While 153 people worldwide have contracted that illness, most in Britain, it has never been diagnosed in an American -- a fact that apparently has helped ease consumers' initial concerns.

Jonathan Bernstein, editor of the newsletter Crisis Management International and head of Bernstein Crisis Management of Los Angeles, thinks the government's complicated initial explanation of mad cow contributed to an early scare.

"I think there was a little bit of public panic at first, in terms of `I don't think I'm going to eat beef for a few days until I figure this out,'" he said. "Ultimately, the message got through to the general public that there's an extremely small chance of the average consumer being affected -- at least at this point."

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