Meat-Safety Matters

Always a hot-button issue, the safety of the U.S. meat supply lingers under the nation’s microscope – but consumers remain confident.
From a BSE-infected Texas cow, persisting border closures, and a major border opening, to intense concerns over food pathogens and their eradication, meat-safety issues continue to challenge the U.S. meat industry and make headlines worldwide.
During the past few months alone, a home-grown U.S. cow tested positive for BSE, the borders between Canada and the United States reopened for exports of Canadian cattle less than 30 months of age, and test results taken from another cow suspected of having BSE were confirmed negative. Meanwhile, other foreign markets, among them Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Russia, remain closed since the first U.S. case of mad-cow disease surfaced in Washington state in a Canadian-born Holstein in December 2003.
While news coverage of BSE has been extensive this year, consumers appear confident in the safety of the U.S. beef supply, however. A consumer-tracking survey conducted from June 27 to June 29 found that BSE news coverage has not affected consumer confidence that U.S. beef is safe from BSE.
The independently conducted telephone survey of 927 adults – funded by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) and managed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) – found that 92 percent of American consumers are confident U.S. beef is safe from mad-cow disease. Moreover, the level of confidence in U.S. beef safety has remained strong (averaging 91 percent) since the first U.S. case of BSE was announced in 2003.
As far as the USDA is concerned, 89 percent of consumers say the department is doing a good job of protecting U.S. cattle from getting mad-cow disease, while 90 percent say it is doing a good job of protecting the public from exposure to mad-cow disease.
“The beef industry has always known that it is extremely important to keep our finger on the pulse of the American consumer,” says Al Svajgr, a Nebraska cattle producer and chairman of CBB. “But it is especially critical that we understand consumer attitudes and concerns related to BSE. Having tracked this information for many years, the Beef Checkoff Program has substantial, established data that measures consumer concerns and helps the industry to address them effectively and accurately.”
Collaborative efforts yield results
Besides issues related to BSE, collaborative efforts throughout the food chain have had a positive impact on food-borne disease. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)show important declines in food-borne infections due to bacterial pathogens in 2004. For the first time, cases of E. coli O157 infections are below the national Healthy People 2010 health goal, with the incidence of E. coli O157 infections decreasing 42 percent from 1996 to 2004, for example.
Campylobacter infections have decreased 31 percent, Cryptosporidium has dropped 40 percent, and Yersinia has decreased 45 percent. Salmonella infections have dropped 8 percent, but only one of the five most common strains has declined significantly. The incidence of Shigella, which is found in a wide variety of foods, did not change significantly from 1996 through 2004, while Vibrio infections increased 47 percent.
“This report is good news for Americans and underscores the importance of investments in food safety. Our efforts are working, and we're making progress in reducing food-borne illnesses,” notes CDC Director Julie Gerberding. “However, food-borne disease is still a significant cause of illness in the United States, and further efforts are needed to sustain and extend these important declines and to improve prevention of food-borne illnesses.” NP