How safe is our meat?

How safe is our meat?

May 14, 2001 Chicago Tribune by John Patterson
SPRINGFIELD - A big, thick juicy steak.

It's so American it could be draped in the flag, served on a Chevy tailgate and chased with mom's apple pie.

Oh, and there's the growing fear that it could sicken, if not kill you. First there was the nightmare of mad cow. Now foot-and-mouth disease appears to be running rampant across Europe and poses an economic threat should it emerge here.

Don't forget E. coli and salmonella: The two combine to sicken at least 113,000 people annually, according to the national Centers for Disease Control [Not to mention paratuberculosis bacteria which may be causing Crohn's disease--BSE coordinator].

At times it seems nothing is safe to eat, as if Charlton Heston is on the verge of yelling, "Soylent Green is people."

Relax and chew, say agriculture and food safety experts.

"We're probably as secure as anybody," said Jan Novakofski, an animal science professor at the University of Illinois who studies mad cow disease. A meat-eater himself, Novakofski said there are fewer than 100 known cases of mad cow disease in humans worldwide and none in the United States.

Given the number of people who eat meat - the average person in the United States is expected to consume 225.5 pounds this year, which includes everything from steak to chicken - the chances of getting sick or dying are pretty slim.

Those odds are due to government bans on imported meat, increased inspections and training, and probably a little luck, food safety experts say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the import of all cattle and most cattle products from the United Kingdom and other European countries in 1989 in response to mad cow outbreaks. The ban was expanded to include all of Europe in 1997.

All U.S. cattle must be inspected by the USDA before being slaughtered. Federal inspectors look for signs of neurological problems associated with mad cow disease. Animals showing possible symptoms are condemned, and the meat is not permitted for use as human food. The brains fro•these animals are sent to the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories for analysis.

The ban on European cattle and meat imports for mad cow disease also has helped prevent the more recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks from coming here, experts say. Many of the latest efforts to prevent the disease from reaching the U.S. deal with travelers who have been to countries where foot-and-mouth is a problem.

For instance, the University of Illinois Department of Agriculture has restricted outside access to its facilities. And an outbreak of foot-and-mouth is such a threat that Illinois agriculture officials recently said they would immediately quarantine and destroy all animals at this summer's Illinois State Fair if an infected animal is found - a scenario that would include killing hundreds of prized livestock.

But the ban on imported meat and cattle doesn't mean every burger in the Chicago-area comes from a cow on a downstate farm. Illinois ranks 26th in the nation in the cattle industry. The meat we eat is more likely to come from cattle operations elsewhere in the Plains States. And as of 1999, the United States imported nearly 2.9 billion pounds of beef, mostly from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"In modern society, the concept of a local supply of food is very attractive mythology," Novakofski said. The demand of consumers makes that impossible, he said.

Knowing the enemy

Despite almost daily media attention about the diseases, Novakofski and other agriculture experts said most people don't know much about the illnesses, their causes, or health effects.

For instance, you can wash a steak with bleach and burn it to a crisp, but if it was infected with mad cow disease, it'll still be in there. That's because the disease is caused by a protein, not a virus or bacteria. This particular protein mutates, and in high enough concentrations, becomes toxic to nerve cells, Novakofski said. So far the disease has always been fatal, slowly eating away at the infected animal or person's brain and nervous system.

Preventing infection in the first place is the only way to stop its spread, Novakofski said. The spread of mad cow disease has been traced to leftover parts of dead cows carrying the mutant protein being ground up, added to cattle feed, and fed to other cows.

The process has been banned in the United States since 1997. Cattle from England cannot be imported here, and there has never been a confirmed case of mad cow disease in the United States. So, if the ban on feeding cow parts to cows is followed and enforced, there should be no problem.

But there have been problems, and that's where luck comes in. In Texas, U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors found cattle feed that contained meat and bone meal from other cattle. Earlier this year, the FDA announced that the feed contained very low levels of the prohibited material and said the risk of it being infected with mad cow disease was minimal. Nonetheless, the cows were not used for human consumption.

The Texas situation exemplifies how easily one slip up could change the face of agriculture in this country.

"We've never had (mad cow disease) in the United States, and we have the ban so hopefully it would never be transmitted. We know from England the feed ban works - as long as there's compliance," Novakofski said.

State Sen. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican, has proposed legislation to step up the Illinois Department of Agriculture's inspection schedule. Currently, inspectors audit feed mills every two years. Roskam wants it changed to every 90 days.

He said Illinois should do "everything conceivable" to make sure mad cow never surfaces here. Roskam, an attorney, said he was motivated by his love of ribeyes.

Foot-and-mouth disease, on the other hand, seldom spreads from animals to humans, although a human form exists.

"One of the points people miss about foot and mouth, is that it is not a fatal disease (for animals or humans)," Novakofski said. "Typically it makes (animals) unproductive. They don't eat. They get lesions on the mouth. It takes a lot of care to get them back."

It is often more efficient to kill infected animals than heal them.

"The reason they kill all the animals is it's very contagious. It's almost like a forest fire," Novakofski said. "If it spreads, it's going to cause an economic disaster."

McDonald's executives blamed the European food problems for lower profits recently. The company's media relations department did not return calls.

And there may be fewer ribs at Taste of Chicago this summer because rib prices have skyrocketed since the European foot-and-mouth disease scare prompted the U.S. ban on hog imports. Baby back ribs are selling for $6 a pound compared with $2.60 last year.

While mad cow and foot-and-mouth capture headlines, other food illness like E. coli and salmonella remain a much more likely threat. Just last month a Canadian meat processor recalled 204,000 pounds of ground beef because of possible E. coli contamination. The beef was being distributed in the United States, including Illinois.

The national Centers for Disease Control reports there are 73,000 E. coli infections annually. E. coli is found naturally in animals but is destroyed in meat by thorough cooking. It can also be found in sprouts and lettuce that have not been properly washed.

An E. coli infection can cause diarrhea and, in the very young or very old, further problems or even death. The CDC attributes 61 deaths annually to E. coli.

Salmonella also is linked to eating foods that have not been cooked properly. The illness causes diarrhea, fever and cramps. The CDC receives reports of 40,000 salmonella cases annually.

Taking it for granted

N. Duane Noland is a central Illinois farmer and a Republican state senator. "We have benefited for years in this nation of it being a given that our food was safe. When you see what has happened in Europe it makes you think," he said.

With the amount of international travel coming in to airports like O'Hare International Airport, Noland said it's scary to think how easily something like foot-and-mouth disease could spread if precautions aren't maintained.

"It'd be devastating," he said.

Aside from the economic problems, consumers would have to develop a taste for soy burgers and tofu.

"It'd be tough for us," said Diane Quagliani, a registered dietician in Western Springs and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Meat is certainly a food we enjoy here."

Food safety analyst Ann Hollingsworth said most people take food safety for granted.

"I think they expect a level of food safety that may not be realistic at times. I don't think they realize how much effort goes into the processing of their food whether it is hamburger, steak or lettuce. I don't think they realize the steps it takes to keep that produce safe."

Hollingsworth is a former vice president of food safety for Keystone Foods. Based in the Philadelphia area, Keystone is a meat supplier for many national fast-food chains. Hollingsworth, now based in Carollton, Ga., is a food safety and food crisis management consultant.

She said she's pleased with the steps the U.S. meat industry has taken to prevent either disease here. Because an outbreak would spell financial doom for the industry, Hollingsworth said companies often are ahead of the government in preventing and preparing for the same kinds of catastrophes that have happened in Europe.

With an intimate knowledge of how the industry works and the scares that can lurk behind every corner, Hollingsworth said she doesn't hesitate to sit down to a steak dinner.

"I was born and raised on a cattle farm," she said. "I'm cautious when I travel internationally about what I eat. And I would probably think twice about eating beef in Great Britain."

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