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Mad Cow Case in Canada Raises Concern Among US Livestock Owners - 2003-05-25

This week's discovery that a Canadian cow slaughtered in January was infected with mad cow disease is causing jitters in U.S. cattle country. One of the nation's top cattle producing states, livestock owners fear that consumers might stop buying beef, and, worse… that the deadly disease could turn up closer to home.

At this time of year, cattle ranchers throughout Nebraska begin to release their herds into expansive deep green grasslands, to graze for the summer. The cows and calves roam free over tens-of-thousands of hectares, in pastures separated only by electric or barbed wire fences stretched tight between wooden posts. Many ranchers spend their days fixing broken fences, plowing fields and talking to neighbors about the weather and the commodity markets. But this week, the discussions are far more serious. The topic on everyone's lips is the case of mad cow disease discovered in Canada.

Dan Nelms watches over 1,800 head of cattle near Benkelman, Nebraska. He says this single occurrence is having a profound impact in this country.

"It's put fear into people that it will be just like the hoof-and-mouth disease was a year ago, the scare that went on with it," he said. "It's going to have a long-term effect just because it has put fear back into people."

Attempting to calm those fears is taking almost all of Jack Lawless's time. He manages the 30,000-head Imperial Beef Cattle feedlot here in southwest Nebraska, where ranchers bring their animals to fatten them before slaughter.

Just outside his office window, workers use tractors and specially designed trucks to mix together grain and pungent-smelling fermented crushed corn to feed the cattle. Mr. Lawless says since Tuesday afternoon, he's spent most of his time on the telephone, trying to reassure ranchers that their industry is stable. On Tuesday, cattle futures on the Chicago Board Of Trade fell the maximum amount allowed in one day of trading, through they rebounded somewhat the next day.

Mr. Lawless says it will take some time to determine whether the mad cow case will lower the prices ranchers get at auction. He says that will depend largely on whether American consumers start to shy away from buying beef, and spend their money on other types of meat.

"We are going to be watching as more results come from the testing that they are doing, and see what the consumer thinks of it," he said. "That is going to be the obvious test in the end: if our consumers keep their confidence levels in us as producers, and in our food supply and its safety.

But some ranchers see a silver lining to this week's developments. Steve Stroup, who owns a herd of 1,500 cattle near Benkelman, says finding mad cow disease in Canada may provide a competitive advantage for ranchers raising American beef.

"You hate to have a positive side put on something you're doing at the expense of another, because it's all beef and we are all beef producers trying to make every operation work," he said. "But if I'm a consumer and I know where this disease had been present and I would also have the knowledge of where it hadn't been, I know what package of beef I'd buy."

But it's not that simple. Most packages of beef don't yet have labels stating country of origin, so consumers would not know where the meat came from. And even if there were a label stating 'U.S. Beef,' it is possible an infected cow could have been imported from Canada before the mad cow case was confirmed this week. While the borders between the countries were closed once the disease was identified, Canadian and American ranchers have a long history of trading livestock, and cattlemen on both sides of the border hope to resume business as usual soon.