Beef: ‘It’s what’s
for dinner …’
Local beef sales strong
despite ‘mad cow’ scare
By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer
At Warm Springs Ranch Restaurant in
Ketchum, customers have not hesitated to order a hot plate of juicy prime rib.
At Atkinsons’ Market—and at nearby Williams Market—locals and visitors alike are
eagerly opening their wallets to bring home freshly cut tenderloin and T-bone
Rich Stoney, meat and seafood
manager for Williams Market, cuts steaks for sale at the Ketchum supermarket.
Stoney said beef sales have been strong in recent weeks. Express photos by
David N. Seelig
And, in the Wood River Valley and beyond,
many retailers, wholesalers and restaurateurs are rejoicing for one simple
reason: Beef sales are strong, despite daily reports since Dec. 23, 2003, that
bovine spongiform encephalopathy—also known as "mad cow disease"—had been
detected in the Northwestern United States.
"We’ve had a lot of questions, no doubt,"
said Chip Atkinson, president of Atkinsons’ Markets, which has stores in
Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.
However, Atkinson said beef sales at
Atkinsons’ stores have not suffered in the last three weeks, as federal
agriculture officials have worked to determine whether the discovery of a BSE-infected
dairy cow in Washington—whose meat was shipped to eight states, including
Idaho—could pose a public health threat.
"We definitely are not seeing any marked
change in our customers’ purchasing habits," he said. "Chicken sales are up a
bit, but there has been no wholesale shift."
Atkinson noted that sales during the New
Year’s holiday season of all types of meat, including beef, were exceptionally
strong. "Meat was gangbusters this holiday. In Ketchum, I don’t think we had a
single special order canceled."
Chris Williams, owner of Williams Market
in downtown Ketchum, said customers at his store might be substituting chicken,
pork or fish in a meal that might have once included beef, but only on a limited
"I haven’t observed any differences,"
Williams said. "Consumers seem to be behaving the same way they always have."
Gary Goodwin, sales manager of
Meridian-based Tri-City Meats, which distributes beef to several businesses in
the Wood River Valley, said he has recorded "no sales drop-off" since the U.S.
Department of Agriculture confirmed the Washington BSE case, the first of its
kind in the country.
Bob Dunn, owner of Warm Springs Ranch
Restaurant, said sales of grilled steaks and roasted prime rib have been
exceptionally strong, particularly during the week preceding New Year’s Day.
"Beef sales are strong and steady," Dunn
said, noting that he has fielded only a handful of questions from customers
about the safety of the region’s beef supply.
"When this first started, I was telling my
workers they should be prepared to sell a lot of fish and chicken, but that
hasn’t happened. It seems to be a non-issue so far."
The trend locally to trust that BSE does
not currently pose a significant threat to public health—which seems to be
mirroring a nationwide trend—could be a direct response to a barrage of
statements from agriculture and beef-industry officials assuring the public that
the nation’s beef supply is safe.
"U.S. consumers should continue to eat
beef with confidence," said Leah Clark, executive director of the Idaho Beef
Council, in a prepared statement after the media reported the Washington BSE
case. "All scientific studies show that the BSE infectious agent has never been
found in beef muscle or milk. (It) is found only in the central nervous tissue
of an infected animal, such as the brain and spinal cord."
Indeed, many scientists have agreed that
BSE—which is believed to be spread among cattle that consume feed contaminated
by the ground body parts of infected bovine animals—concur that most beef muscle
cuts are safe for human consumption. Humans who consume BSE-infected meats can
contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a condition that severely impairs brain
function and can lead to death.
The federal government in 1997 banned the
incorporation of ruminant products in protein feed for other domestic ruminants.
As an additional precaution, the USDA in late December 2003 banned the use of
so-called "downer" cattle—those too sick or injured to walk—from the human food
The BSE-infected cow discovered in
Washington had been identified as a "downer" animal.
Still, some scientists and industry
watchdogs have asserted that the nation’s beef supply might pose some health
risks. Ground beef, which can include meat from cattle old enough to predate the
1997 feed ban, is said to pose a more significant risk than steaks or roasts.
Representatives of Atkinsons’ and Williams
markets this week said they believe their beef supplies—including ground
Rich Stoney, meat and seafood manager for
Williams Market, said meat wholesalers typically do not sell any muscle cuts
from cattle older than approximately 30 months.
In addition, Stoney said market employees
grind in house all of the ground beef they sell, greatly reducing the risk that
BSE could be present. "Definitely it’s safe," he said.
Atkinson said he also prohibits the
purchase of ground beef from outside sources. Instead, each market grinds its
own beef cuts for sale to the public.
Atkinson said he and his meat department
managers have assured several customers that the meat they sell is free of
diseases. "We tell them it’s safe. And we also tell them they have options, like
organic or grass-fed beef."
Atkinson and Stoney both noted that sales
of organic beef—which is readily available in Blaine County and is popular with
a sector of the buying public—are steady but have not climbed sharply.
As federal officials this week continued
their quest to quarantine cattle associated with a Canada herd that produced the
infected Washington cow, Atkinson praised their actions. "I take my hat off to
the USDA," he said. "They’ve responded really well."