Foot-and-mouth, mad cow disease, E. coli ... the scare of the week has some Texans rethinking meat

May 1, 2001 The Dallas Morning News by Michael Precker

Even as she enjoyed the occasional steak, Max Daniels, a 20-year-old receptionist and part-time student from North Richland Hills, had been feeling uneasy about eating meat.

Then she started watching the sad news from England: cattle, sheep and other animals slaughtered by the thousands, dumped in huge trenches or piled onto smoldering pyres.

"I had already thought about becoming vegetarian," says Ms. Daniels, whose nickname is short for Maxine. "When all that started happening, it kind of set it off."

On April 3, she ate a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant. The next day, she says, "I just decided I wouldn't eat meat anymore."

Across the ocean in Finland, where the Dallasite is on a temporary job assignment, Angel Olvera is watching those same reports.

"Yeah, it's a shame, and it's made me think a little bit," says Mr. Olvera, who is 25. "I have friends who are second-guessing themselves about eating beef, but not me.

"Maybe it stems from being born and raised in Texas," he says. "I was raised on beef, and I will eat it as long as I have teeth."

These conflicting sentiments aren't new, nor is the debate over the health effects of meat and the morality of eating animals. But a succession of developments over the past few months has intensified the arguments ? and raised vegetarians' hopes of winning more converts.

"Of course it's affecting people," says Howard Lyman, a former Montana cattle rancher who became a crusader against eating meat. "Whether it's the sight of so many animals dying or the effect on the environment, every time a consumer goes to the supermarket or sits down and opens a menu, they're influenced by what's happening."

Not so, says Tim Taft, president and chief operating officer of Whataburger, which is headquartered in Corpus Christi.

"Our business has never been better," he says. "That is because the beef-buying consumer in the United States has a great sense of confidence in our government and the regulation of our food sources."

This is just some of the recent food for thought:

• A February outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among English livestock spread to the European continent. Although the disease rarely affects humans, authorities trying to contain the epidemic have slaughtered more than 1million cows, sheep and pigs and restricted travel to parts of rural England.

• The United States banned meat imports from Europe after recent outbreaks and began taking unusual measures to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of this country, including disinfecting the shoes of travelers arriving from England.

• Fears of mad cow disease, a mysterious ailment that can attack the human brain, already have lowered beef consumption in parts of Europe. Although the disease never has been confirmed in the United States, authorities in March seized hundreds of imported sheep from two farms in Vermont because of fear that they may be infected.

• The current bestseller Fast-Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal builds an unappetizing case against meat, ranging from graphic descriptions of slaughterhouses to warnings about dangers in hamburgers.

Ms. Daniels can't point to one factor that propelled her into the ranks of vegetarians.

"There are so many reasons," she says. "With all the disease and things, there's no reason why if it happened over there it can't happen here."

'I enjoy steak'

Mr. Olvera counters with a combination of conviction – he's sure that American beef is safe – and emotion. "I'm one of those who thinks life is short and you have to eat the things you enjoy," he says. "And I enjoy steak."

Sales figures show that many Americans have shifted from red meat to fish and chicken in recent years, but Ms. Daniels says she didn't want to take any halfway measures.

"It's just not right the way animals are brought up to die," she says. "It's hypocritical of me to love animals and eat them at the same time. I just didn't want to be part of that anymore."

So far, that attitude doesn't seem to be reflected on a large scale. At the 30,000-member Vegetarian Resource Group, spokesman Drew Nelson says the organization is getting more hits than usual on its advice-filled Web site, but he wouldn't call it a groundswell.

He compares the uptick in interest to the reaction when Oprah Winfrey told her television audience she was swearing off hamburgers because she was afraid of mad cow disease, prompting Texas cattlemen to sue her for defamation. In a widely publicized trial three years ago in Amarillo, Ms. Winfrey won.

"There was a lot of hubbub about meat and becoming vegetarian because of that, but it kind of died out," Mr. Nelson says.

In fact, beef consumption, which had been dropping steadily for nearly two decades, began rising in 1999. Government figures show that Americans ate 66 pounds of beef per capita last year, more than either chicken or pork.

Aliza Harrison, spokeswoman for the National Beef Cattlemen's Association, says sales reports and tracking polls show that consumption – and consumer attitudes – have not been affected by the troubles in Europe.

"Consumers are paying attention, and they need to be asking questions," Ms. Harrison says. "We need to be telling them all we're doing to keep foot-and-mouth disease and BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the formal name for mad cow disease] out of this country, and we're doing that."

At Bob's Steak and Chop House, an upscale restaurant in Oak Lawn, owner Bob Sambol says the troubles in Europe are helping his business.

"Whenever we get people in here from Europe, they eat steak," he says. "If they're here three nights, they'll eat steak three nights because they can't get it over there."

His American customers, Mr. Sambol says, "are so insulated from those type of occurrences that they almost can't believe it's happening. It seems like it's a million miles away, and when you consider our technology and the way we handle our livestock, it is a million miles away."

Mr. Lyman, the rancher-turned-vegetarian whose latest book is Mad Cowboy, couldn't disagree more. His 1996 appearance on the The Oprah Winfrey Show, when he warned that mad cow disease would occur here, prompted Ms. Winfrey's comments that led to the lawsuit.

Now, he says he is more convinced than ever that Europe's troubles will surface here, setting off a huge backlash against meat.

"I think the meat industry is digging themselves a hell of a hole [by denying there's a problem], and it's going to come back to bite them," Mr. Lyman says.

Overnight sensation

If mad cow disease ever is confirmed in the United States, culinary historian Andrew Smith says he expects a panic, whether it's logical or not.

"In England, which is a beef-eating country, large numbers of people gave up eating beef at all overnight," says Mr. Smith, who teaches at the New School University in New York City. "I think the exact same thing would happen here. We're all keyed up to be scared by the latest fright."

But even if that happens, he says, it doesn't mean Americans would permanently alter their eating habits.

"There have been constant scares since at least the 1830s that affected how people ate," Mr. Smith says. "Some were nonsense, and some were real."

Among his favorite food fallacies was the 19th-century belief that tomatoes caused cancer. More seriously, he says, people have periodically stopped consuming milk, meat and fish because of real health hazards.

In most cases, Mr. Smith says, market pressures forced food suppliers to adopt stronger safety measures, which brought consumers back.

"The recurring theme has been 'We're changing our diets until you figure out a way to solve the problem,'" he says. "But most people didn't wind up vegetarians."

Similarly, fears about Alar, a pesticide used on fruit, sent apple sales plummeting in 1989. But sales rebounded quickly and the controversy was forgotten when farmers stopped using the chemical.

Mr. Lyman and Mr. Nelson, both committed vegetarians, agree that scare tactics and zealotry won't do much for their cause in the long term.

"The biggest mistake the [animal rights] movement ever made was doing things like throwing paint on people wearing fur," Mr. Lyman says. "Nobody listens to you when you point your finger at them and scream. This is the same situation."

When people start to think about giving up meat, Mr. Nelson says, "we're happy, but you don't want to come on too strong. Some people hear someone might become vegetarian and right away they jump down their throat and say you shouldn't eat eggs or dairy either. If they're militant, that can turn someone off."

For most people, major changes in how they eat come gradually.

"We want people to start to think about what they're eating and where their food comes from," he says. "I think what's happening now gives us somewhat of an opportunity."

Then again, some people take the big step all at once.

"It's really not that much of a change," Ms. Daniels says. "You just don't eat meat."

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