Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Area beef outlets unaffected

Meat inspectors scrutinize every slaughter in Ohio

By Matt Leingang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLERAIN TWP. - Denny Stehlin is trying to reassure people in Greater Cincinnati about the safety of beef in the wake of concerns about mad cow disease.

"Customers are aware of what's going on, but I don't sense panic," said Stehlin, vice president of Stehlin's Meat Market in Colerain Township, a family owned business that's been slaughtering cattle, packaging the meat and selling it since 1913. "I'm concerned about the disease myself, but I'm not worried about it in our area. I've got confidence in the system."

In a routine procedure that has nothing to do with mad cow disease, Josh Rinckel with Stehlin's Meat Market in Colerain Township sprays a side of beef from a freshly slaughtered steer with an anti-microbial solution.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Meat from an infected dairy cow in Washington state has reached retail markets in various states, but not Ohio or Kentucky.

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, a veterinarian with the U.S. Agriculture Department, said on Monday that meat from the infected dairy cow poses "essentially zero risk to consumers."

Mad cow disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, affects the central nervous system of cows. It's a concern for humans because people who eat brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In the case of the Washington state cow, its brain, spinal cord and lower intestine - parts most likely to carry the infection - were removed before the meat was cut and processed for human consumption, Peterson said.

But as a precaution, federal officials recalled 10,000 pounds of meat from the infected cow and from 19 other cows slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. in Moses Lake, Wash.

Kroger, the largest supermarket company in the nation, has not been affected - most of its meat comes from suppliers throughout the Midwest, said spokesman Gary Rhodes.

But two of Kroger's chains that operate in Washington state, Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers, were affected.

Fred Meyer received eight cases - or 96 packages - of ground beef patties from a Washington supplier that contracts with Vern's Moses and voluntarily took the meat off the shelf. Quality food Centers also pulled some beef that came from the same supplier.

Because of the publicity surrounding this one case of mad cow disease, Stehlin said, he might see a slight drop in beef sales as consumers follow developments. "But I believe we'll quickly bounce back," said Stehlin, whose company purchases livestock from local cattle farmers and slaughters 10 to 20 head of cattle a week.

Rick Weber, vice president of marketing for Morton's of Chicago, which has a steakhouse restaurant downtown, said Monday that it's too early for any restaurant to take specific steps. Likewise, Morton's has not seen any discernible affect on beef sales, he said.

Ohio is not known as a major beef-producing state, said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Beef Council and the Ohio Cattlemen's Association.

The state ranks 15th in the nation with about 17,000 beef farms; Kentucky ranks fifth with 40,000 cattle producers.

The meat processing business is even smaller here. Ohio has 229 state-licensed plants. Of those, only nine function as red-meat slaughterhouses; the rest are a mix of slaughterhouses and processing plants for red meat and poultry.

But all come under the scrutiny of Ohio's 100 full-time meat inspectors.

These inspectors evaluate animals prior to slaughter and inspect the carcasses afterward. No animal can be slaughtered without an inspector present, said Melanie Wilt, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Animals that show signs of a central nervous system disorder are not allowed to be slaughtered, Wilt said.

Stehlin said he gets visits from state inspectors almost every day - and always when he slaughters an animal. He also sends brain tissue samples to a federal lab in Ames, Iowa, which screens for mad cow disease.

Has all of this publicity been overblown?

"Tough to say," Stehlin said, adding that he's not surprised that the disease showed up in the United States.

"I thought it was only a matter of time," Stehlin said. "No matter how many safeguards, it was bound to happen because it was too widespread in Europe - and it was bound to find its way here."


Reporter Polly Campbell contributed. E-mail mleingang@enquirer.com

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