The full impact of the discovery of "mad cow" disease in the United States isn't known yet, but the case certainly raises the awareness of Americans to the importance of maintaining a safe food supply.
In our increasingly global economy, Americans receive food from many other countries. We have been somewhat spoiled by the fact that we can buy certain foods more cheaply or at a time when they are out of season in the United States. At times, many consumers have questioned the importance of providing government support for American farmers, but recent events may spur greater respect for the job those farmers do.
Last month, an outbreak of hepatitis A in Pennsylvania was traced to green onions imported from Mexican suppliers. Several people died and hundreds became sick after eating in a Chi-Chi's restaurant near Pittsburgh. The discovery of a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state now threatens to devastate the American cattle industry as it did in Great Britain several years ago.
Cattle can contract the disease either from other cattle or by eating feed that includes contaminated meat and bone meal. To prevent the spread of BSE, the United States banned the importation of beef from the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and Israel, where BSE was present, and banned the use of cattle feed that contained proteins from other mammals. Despite the bans, officials now suspect the Washington BSE case was transmitted through contaminated feed.
The case emphasizes how vulnerable the nation's food supply can be. Whether through terrorist motives or sheer neglect, it doesn't take much to disrupt the agriculture sector, affecting not only the food supply, but the nation's economy.
If fear spreads among American consumers, the mad cow incident could have a devastating effect on Kansas, which is home to feedlots that supply almost a quarter of the beef consumed in the United States. Beef prices were riding high, and cattle operations were reaping unusually large profits in the past several months, but losses now are expected to be significant, if not disastrous.
It's only natural, after the recent news items, for consumers to think twice about eating at Chi-Chi's or picking up a pound of ground beef at the local supermarket. Even a small risk that a meal could have deadly results is enough to dampen one's appetite.
So what's it worth to America to have a food supply that is highly safe and reliable? Would you pay a little extra for meat that comes through a well-regulated production system that you knew you could trust? It's a question of national security, as well as national health.
There is every indication that federal officials are prepared to deal quickly with the BSE case in Washington. Hopefully they will be able to minimize its impact on the nation's food supply and the farm economy. How this case is handled will have a significant impact on how much confidence consumers have in the safety of food produced in America.
Many American consumers have little awareness of or appreciation for what it takes to put food on their tables. The system is more vulnerable that many of us would like to think and more vital to our well-being than we often acknowledge.