Farmers at Ground Zero of Mad Cow Probe Grumble Over Image Taint

Mike Correia and four other weathered men in blue jeans and soiled work boots gathered for coffee at a gas station outside Hanford, California. The farming center is where the fourth case of mad cow disease ever found in the U.S. has surfaced. The topic was the media.

“The dairy business is hurting already and we don’t need this,” said Correia, seated at a dinette table near the cash register. He grows feed for cattle nearby in the southern San Joaquin valley. “Dairy down here makes the world go.”

Farmers fear a repeat of 2003, when the first confirmed U.S. case led to losses estimated as high as $4.7 billion in 2004 for the American beef industry. Within hours of the latest announcement, cattle futures plummeted to a nine-month low. Some South Korean retailers said they would suspend imports of U.S. beef. “Mad cow disease” was the most-searched term on Google for a time yesterday.

Correia, 56, and the other farmers gathered around that table complained about how television news showed stock footage of sickened cows that was unrelated to the case in California.

“People are going to think it’s in the food chain and the media is blowing it out proportion,” Correia said. “They are scaring people and they have nothing to worry about.”

The diseased cow arrived April 18 at a Baker Commodities Inc. facility just outside of Hanford, where so-called deadstock are held before going to a rendering plant, Dennis Luckey, executive vice president of operations at Los Angeles-based Baker, said in a telephone interview.

Rendering Products

Cattle and dairy farmers typically pay such rendering companies to haul away cows not intended for the dinner table. The company turns the carcasses into protein supplements for chickens and pigs, an ingredient in pet food, and other products, according to Baker’s website.

A dead dairy cow at the company’s transfer station in Hanford was identified by a routine test for the brain-wasting disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, agriculture officials said April 24. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sought to reassure the public, saying the infected animal didn’t enter the human food chain.

“People are going to panic,” Dave Thomas, who owns a small dairy farm with 300 cows and two workers just west of town, said as he inspected his milking stalls. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Scientists say the disease is spread through feed that contains brain or spinal cord tissue from infected animals. People can get it from eating products containing such tissues, including head cheese. Since 1997, feed made from mammals has been banned from cattle rations, and high-risk materials such as brains have been kept from the human food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

‘Atypical’ Disease

The California cow tested positive for so-called atypical BSE, which the Agriculture Department said isn’t generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed. Such cases can occur spontaneously in older animals, according to the department.

In Hanford, a community of 55,000 about 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles, many people were taking the development in stride. The community is a trading hub for hundreds of sprawling dairy farms, orchards and crop fields in the surrounding area.

The public should be reassured by the routine and random testing, said Steve Maddox, named 2011 Outstanding Dairy Producer of the Year by Western DairyBusiness magazine.

“The nice thing about this situation is that the system works,” said Maddox, who milks about 3,500 cows in Hanford. “Our controls and systems that we have in place are doing what they’re supposed to do.”

After the USDA announcement, Maddox said he spent 45 minutes on the telephone with his congressman, U.S. Representative Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat.

‘Rumors Kill Us’

“He asked me what he could do to help,” Maddox said. “I told him the most important thing right now is that accurate information gets out. It’s the rumors that kill us.”

Mad cow disease has been most prevalent in the U.K., which has had 184,000 cases since 1987. Last year, 29 cases were reported worldwide. Canada, the biggest U.S. agricultural trading partner, had 19 as of February 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The discovery in California spurred fresh calls for increased monitoring of the U.S. meat supply. In 2003, after the first case, dozens of countries shut their doors to U.S. shipments. Some nations, including China, have maintained part of the restrictions ever since.

“We beefed some cows just today, and I was afraid the price would drop, but we got lucky and they paid us the same price,” said Joseph Parreira, referring to the sale of some of the 5,000 dairy cows on his father’s farm. Dairy cattle that aren’t producing enough milk to be profitable are often sold for slaughter.

Parreira said he has no plans to eat less beef. “Your chances of dying from an infected cow aren’t high enough to even register or worry about,” he said.

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