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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of January 14 - 20, 2004


Beef: ‘It’s what’s
for dinner …’

Local beef sales strong
despite ‘mad cow’ scare

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 steaks.

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 basis.

"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 supply.

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 beef—are safe.

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."



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