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Mad Cows and Organic Beef© 2004 by Rupert Jannasch. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the author through email@example.com.
Production of certified organic meat has lagged behind the organic vegetable and dairy sectors, but recent headlines over mad cow disease give reason to assess the health of the organic beef market.
Until the publication of the National Standard for Organic Agriculture in 1999, production of organic beef in Canada was limited largely by stringent livestock production standards. Relaxed rules permitting the restricted use of conventionally grown feed and worm medications, bringing the standards more in line with those in Europe, have encouraged larger scale organic beef production.
Prions, the renegade proteins that turn a BSE-affected animal's brains to mush, have been linked to a human variant of the brain wasting syndrome, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The bovine form is caused by feeding slaughterhouse offal, particularly ruminant nervous tissue from the brain and spinal cord, to cattle. No evidence suggests that humans can contract BSE from eating muscle portions such as roasts or steak.
Organic standards prohibit feeding animal byproducts and slaughterhouse wastes to livestock. It is noteworthy that in the 1920s, Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, the mind behind the biodynamic farming movement, predicted that feeding livestock with animal parts from the same species would cause the animals to go mad.
Has news of mad cow disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) in North America increased demand for organic beef? Producers across Canada report that sales are on the rise, but few believe BSE has had much impact.
Alan Stewart keeps a dozen Hereford-cross cows in Hortonville, Nova Scotia. He markets his beef by the side or box, as well as individual cuts at the Wolfville Farmer's Market. A 50-pound box of mixed cuts sells for $5 (Canadian) per pound.
"Demand is going up 20 to 30 percent a year," says Stewart, "but it is not directly related to mad cow disease. Most of my customers recognize there are fundamental problems with the conventional food system and how beef is raised. They think beyond mad cow disease."
Near Pincher Creek, Alberta, six ranchers belonging to the Producers of the Diamond Willow Range work together to produce and market organic beef. A portion of the steers from a combined herd of about 1200 cows are finished in a dedicated organic feedlot. Most beef is marketed through a distributor in Vancouver.
Coordinator Larry Firth believes the effect of mad cow has been modest. "A big problem," he says, "is that processing costs have increased because we can't get rid of the offal. Killing fees have increased. And we have the same problems as conventional producers getting rid of old cows."
One marketing challenge, says rancher Janet Main, is that buyers typically want high end cuts. Having to sell front quarters at conventional prices means a reduction in organic premiums.
Premiums can be substantial. For example, lean, certified organic ground beef at small grocery stores and butcher shops in Halifax and Ottawa ranges between $6.80 and $8.00 per pound. In one Ottawa store, organic rib steak sells for $16.80 per pound compared to $10.99 for regular steak. (These prices are in Canadian dollars.)
That organic beef is rarely sold by major grocery chains such as Loblaws suggests that the market is still fairly thin. If prices for conventional beef were to collapse, the price spread between organic and conventional beef would increase. This could lead to downward pressure on organic beef prices.
At Beretta Organic Farms, Mike and Cynthia Beretta keep about 100 beef cows on their 800-acre mixed farming operation north of Toronto. All the animals are certified organic, and young cattle are finished on the farm's feedlot. About 400 additional head are purchased and processed at the Beretta's butcher shop.
Having a processing facility means Beretta Farms can sell the entire carcass, including lesser quality cuts, under the organic label. "Being able to move all the beef is the key," says Mike Beretta. "That's where you have to put your emphasis in marketing."
He believes, however, that the organic market may be close to a plateau. "There is much more supply now than in the past, and we're closer to meeting demand."
One concern is that consumers not lose confidence in beef. "We don't want them to eat less beef overall. A new customer may switch to buying organic beef, but they won't buy as much as they used to."
Although organic beef consumption is increasing, the market is still very small. Demand may well be spiked by news stories such as BSE, but the sector's overall health still depends very much on the strength of the farm economy as a whole. The sad fact is, that as long as suppliers of breeding stock, local abattoir owners, and good neighbors are being forced out of business by the political fallout over BSE, the mad cow crisis may harm as much as help the organic beef market in the long run.
Copyright 2004 by Rupert Jannasch. This article was originally written for the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada and can be found at www.organicagcentre.ca. Jannasch is an agricultural researcher and writer, a Nova Scotia farmer, and a therapist using the Bowen Technique of body work.
Italian Researchers Discover Possible New Strain of BSEA study by Italian researchers published in the ***Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences*** suggests the discovery of a new strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). According to the report, researchers examined the brains of eight cattle infected with BSE. Two brains appeared to have a form of BSE that more closely resembled the human form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (sporadic CJD) than the variant-CJD commonly associated with BSE.
According to an Associated Press report, Salvatore Monaco, lead author of the study, said the findings may indicate that cattle can also develop a sporadic form of the disease--but it might also be a new foodborne form of the illness. However, Dr. Paul Brown of the National Institutes of Health said in the same article that the finding does not indicate an increased threat to humans.
If a new form of the disease did affect humans, then the incidence of CJD should have increased, said Brown. But scientists in Europe have found the incidence of sporadic CJD unchanged there for the last decade.
American Meat Institute Foundation President James Hodges issued the following statement in response to the study: "A new and preliminary study by Italian researchers regarding a possible new strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is noteworthy, but experts in the field say that even if a second BSE strain is confirmed, measures already in place to protect cattle and humans from the BSE agent will work effectively against multiple strains."
Researchers discovered accumulations of amyloid plaque in the brain matter of two infected cows. Amyloid plaques are an indication of Alzheimer's disease in humans and are associated with sporadic CJD but have not previously been found in cattle. Italian researchers have named the new condition BASE. Researchers speculate that although the amyloid plaque has been found in only two cattle brains, the condition could be more common than expected.
Source: Agriculture Today, Maine Dept. of Ag., 2/19/04.
A Different Cause of Mad Cow Disease?
British organic dairy farmer Mark Purdey believes that Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs), such as Mad Cow Disease, may be caused by environmental rather than infectious origins. Soils high in manganese and low in copper may be one such cause. Purdy notes that prions occur normally in brains of healthy animals, where they bind with copper and regulate various physiological processes. But when copper is deficient, prions can bind with other, undesirable metals. University of Cambridge biochemist David Brown has shown in cell culture experiments that manganese can change prions into abnormal forms, especially when copper concentratons are low. For more on these subjects, see www.capital.net/~farmfood/.
Source: "Looking More Deeply into Mad Cow," New Connections, Early Winter 2004, Regional Farm & Food Project, 295 Eighth St., Troy NY 12180; 518-271-0744; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protect Yourself from Mad Cow
To protect yourself from Mad Cow Disease, the Public Citizen Health Research Group offers these suggestions:
*avoid brains and beef cheeks;
*avoid meant that comes close to the spinal column (such as neck bones) or contains bone that is part of the spinal cord (such as T-bone steak);
*avoid ground beef unless the butcher grinds it from a whole piece of muscle meat. Ground beef often contains materials recovered by using belts and bone presses to remove meat from the bone and can include nervous tissue as a contaminant;
*pizza toppings, taco fillings, hot dogs, salami and bologna may be contaminated with cattle material;
*avoid beef stock, extract and flavoring;
*donít use dietary supplements that contain animal parts, especially brain or spinal cord from cattle.
Source: "Protecting Yourself from Mad Cow Disease Infection," Health Letter, Public Citizen Health Research Group, March 2004.
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