Science Editor, Ark. Agri. Exp. Station
University of Arkansas animal scientists expect the state's beef producers to weather the latest discovery of "mad cow" disease with a minimal impact on beef prices.
The discovery of a dairy cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state sent shudders through the U.S. beef industry, but the fact that the cow was traced to a Canadian origin will help calm market fears, said Keith Lusby, head of the department of animal science for the U of A Division of Agriculture. "If no more BSE is found in U.S. cattle, markets will rebound," he said.
"If it had to happen, it couldn't have happened at a better time for Arkansas beef producers," said Tom Troxel, Extension section leader for animal science. "A lot of producers sold their calves in the fall because prices were so high, so there weren't many left on the market when BSE was discovered. Stocker cattle operations won't sell their calves until later in the spring and I think the prices are going to rebound pretty quickly."
Troxel said calf prices in Arkansas averaged about $109 per hundredweight in December. Although its too early to determine prices for January, Lusby said prices appeared to be off about 10 cents a pound.
"We had high prices going into this, so even with a 10-cent drop, you still have good markets. If no more BSE is found and if consumer confidence is restored, markets should rebound," Lusby said.
"The main point, the beef industry has to convince consumers that there are no mad cows in the U.S., and that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent BSE materials from entering the food chain," Lusby said. "They will do that one way or another if the industry wants to keep the markets."
Troxel said beef cattle herds tend to be less susceptible to BSE than dairy cattle because of differences in feed and management. BSE is concentrated in neural tissues and, to a lesser extent, in intestinal tissues. The disease is spread when these tissues from infected animals contaminate animal products used as protein supplements for cattle, a practice that was discontinued after the BSE outbreak in Canada.
"Beef herds get a much lower percentage of processed feeds in their diet than do dairy cows," he said. "Beef cattle are fed primarily on pasture forages, and their protein supplements come from soybean and other plant sources."
Fred Pohlman, UA animal scientist, said the U.S. has good control of feed supplies, which ensures safety for Arkansas beef herds. He anticipates more feed testing by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Lusby said new regulation is expected in tracking cattle from farm to market. "In six months, there will be some kind of premise ID for cattle in which every animal can be tracked back to the farm or ranch it came from."
Troxel served on a committee of the National Institute of Animal Agriculture to develop a working plan for tracing an animal health problem to its source in 48 hours. The plan will work up to a system of tracking individual animals. "The plan has been endorsed by the USDA and is now open for public comment," he said. "I think the BSE scare will speed up implementation."
To help provide a safe beef supply for human consumption, Pohlman and UA food scientist Andrew Proctor have developed a fast, accurate procedure for detecting bovine neural tissue in ground beef.
"The typical system in use today is a chemical staining method that's not very fast nor very reliable," Pohlman said. "Another method using a chemical assay is reliable, but slow."
The method developed by Proctor and Pohlman uses modified infrared spectroscopy, based on the fact that neural tissue absorbs infrared light differently than muscle tissue. "Our method can detect neural tissue down to 16 parts per million in about two minutes," Pohlman said. "That's as accurate as any procedure available, and fast enough to be used in-line during meat processing. "It's another level of protection that can help assure a safe food supply for humans."
Pohlman said several companies have expressed interest in adopting the technology for commercial use.
Lusby and Troxel are convinced that the U.S. cattle industry can quickly win back consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef. A tougher job will be winning back the 90 percent of export markets that have already banned U.S. beef because of fears about BSE.
Pohlman said the export market will have a smaller impact on the U.S. industry than it had on European and Canadian industries that rely more heavily on beef exports. "The U.S. exports less than 10 percent of its beef products," he said.
Nevertheless, some of those overseas customers, like Japan, pay more for prime beef than U.S. consumers are willing to pay, so there is likely to be an impact on cattle prices if exports are slow to recover. Troxel said exports can be more political than market-driven and getting them back may have more to do with government negotiations than restoring consumer confidence.