Area residents on alert over mad cow scare

Many consumers have concerns about the safety of their food supply.

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 2:47 a.m.
With reports of mad-cow-tainted beef, farm-raised salmon high in cancer-causing chemicals, and other almost-daily scary stories about food supplies, the dinner bell lately sounds more like a clanging alarm.
But just how alarmed do people in North Central Florida need to be as they approach the table?
That's a question Erin Rosas and others have been getting a lot in the weeks since early December, when the nation's first case of mad cow disease was reported.
"We've been getting a tremendous amount of calls from people and restaurants," said Rosas, who with her husband owns Al Rosas' LLC near Citra, one of the few organic cattle farms in Florida. "They're asking, 'How worried should we be?' "
Should people in this area worry, not only about beef but vegetables and fruit that often come from South America or other places where production standards might not be as stringent as in the United States? The answer varies according to whom you ask.
"Overall, if you follow a few basic rules in washing, cooking and storing food, your odds of becoming ill are about the same as winning the lottery," said Doug Archer, professor of food science and human nutrition in the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Marty Mesh, who represents the roughly 110 certified organic farming, processing and packaging operations in Florida, somewhat agreed.
"In general, I think the American food supply is safe," said Mesh, executive director of the Gainesville-based Florida Organic Growers & Consumers Inc.
But he said a way consumers can more confidently trust their food supplies is to support local agriculture, specifically organic farms that don't use chemicals or processes that can threaten meat and produce.
"One of the concerns coming out of the mad cow issue is the feeding of meat products to animals," Mesh said. "But in organic farming, the feeding of organic by-products is prohibited. So if the cause of mad cow disease is prohibited, then I think organic meat provides consumers with some assurance of safety."
Ron Schmidt, a food-safety specialist with IFAS, said the risk to consumers from mad cow disease is "extremely remote."
"None of that meat came into North Florida," said Schmidt, professor of food science and human nutrition at UF. "There are bigger risks in our society than the food we eat."
He acknowledged that there is "a fair amount of distrust" of governmental regulation of food production and processing. But he said the nation has a system of sound agricultural practices and food-safety initiatives that is intended to keep people from getting sick.
"We have one of the safest food supplies in the world because of the fairly strong regulatory program in place," Schmidt said. "We have very strong traceability and monitoring programs, good collaboration among agencies and much more education among producers and consumers today than in the past."
Every time there has been an outbreak of E. coli, salmonella or other food-related health problem, he said, "usually it's been because somebody made a stupid mistake. Someone in a processing plant didn't wash their hands properly before handling produce, or the pasteurizing temperatures weren't correct."
Schmidt and Archer said consumers, too, share some responsibility for protecting themselves.
"A significant amount of food-borne illness comes in the home," Schmidt said.
People may leave the Thanksgiving turkey out too long, he said. They cut raw chicken up then don't wash the knife or cutting board before chopping vegetables.
They may fail to thoroughly cook meat. Or they eat fresh produce without washing it first.
In almost any season, produce cases at grocery stores are mounded high with fruits and vegetables from other countries, often Central and South America. Archer said there may be some differences in the production and handling standards between foreign and domestic products.
"But balance that with the fact that most chain supermarkets have contracts in which they have set some standards and specifications they expect (from foreign producers)," he said. "That lessens the risk a lot.
"And there's no substitute for washing things well," Archer said.
Erin Rosas said there are other precautions consumers can take when shopping for fresh meat.
"I would get the highest grade beef I could find, and I'd check the packaging date to see when the animal was slaughtered," she said. "Or ask the butcher."
She said she wouldn't buy conventionally produced fresh meat that was processed close to the time of the mad cow announcement. And with frozen meat, she said, "there's no way to tell how long ago the animal was slaughtered."
Rosas also said she would, for the time being, steer clear of hamburger and other ground beef from cattle raised conventionally. Unlike muscle cuts of meat, she said, you can't be sure what went into ground beef.
"Hamburger poses the greatest risk," she said.
Since early December and the mad cow scare, Rosas said, people have been stopping at their farm and buying beef from their small meat locker. Hamburger has been the biggest seller, she said.
All their meat comes from a herd - currently about 45 head - that is born and raised on their farm without hormones and on a lifetime diet of organically grown grasses.
"We don't feed cattle to our cattle," she said, referring to commercial feed that can contain by-products of slaughtered animals.
Organic meat, mainly beef and poultry, comprises a small part of Florida's organic farming industry. Mesh said in addition to vegetables and fruits, the list of organics produced in Florida includes eggs, citrus, even sugar and rice.
Archer said the decision whether to buy organic - sometimes at a higher price - or conventionally produced food largely comes down to consumers' personal choice.
"I don't believe there are any safety differences," he said.
"I've gotten calls from people since this (mad cow) thing, asking if they should eat beef," Archer said. "The truth is the muscle of beef is safe, even if it came from a diseased cow. To me, what this episode meant was that our system is working.
"My advice is enjoy your food," he said, "and respect it."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@

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