Beef scare concerns local businesses

Some Whidbey Island farmers are concerned about future beef prices and one Oak Harbor grocer had to pull some ground beef from its coolers in the wake of the “mad cow disease” scare sweeping the country.

But two South Whidbey grocers report some concern and questions from customers but see only a slight impact on their beef sales.

Neither Payless Foods in Freeland or Casey’s Red Apple in Bayview and Ken’s Corner purchase beef from the slaughterhouse where the diseased cow was discovered.

“We don’t carry dairy cow meat. Our steaks and roasts are all beef cattle from a supplier in Stanwood. We grind most of our ground meats right here from our own beef,” said Bob Ross, Payless Foods meat department manager.

Down the road at Casey’s Red Apple Yvonne Parker says she is not getting many questions from customers.

“Our supplier is Associated Grocers. We have a sign posted from the wholesaler that states all its meat has passed inspection,” Parker said.

Parker and Ross both report that the mad cow scare has not had much impact on local beef sales.

“Sales are tiny bit down, but not as much as I expected,” he said.

While the appearance of the disease also resulted in a quarantined cattle herd in Eastern Washington and a widespread beef recall, the impact on beef prices is the major concern to local farmers.

Karen Bishop, co-owner of Sherman-Bishop Farm in Coupeville, said that she is waiting to see how consumers will react.

“There is a great deal of confidence in the safety of our beef supply,” Bishop said, arguing that this nation has one of the safest food supplies in the world. She is also a member of the state Dairy Products Commission and points out that only one cow nationally has been shown to be infected.

Beef sales account for 5 percent of Sherman-Bishop Farm’s income. Although a small part of the farm’s revenues, declining beef prices hurt the operation.

“We’re operating on such a razor thin margin, that a small part means a lot to us,” Bishop said.

She said a worse-case scenario would be similar to what happened in Canada earlier in the year when concerns over the disease resulted in an 80 percent drop in beef sales.

That would translate into approximately an $80,000 drop in revenue for the farm.

Bishop pointed out that many dairy farms are feeling the pinch of falling milk prices for the past 22 months and struggle to break even, even without the mad cow scare.

Sherman-Bishop Farm milks approximately 500 head of cattle on its Central Whidbey Island operation. Cattle that reach the end of their productive life are sold.

Bishop is worried about the number of countries now banning beef imports from the United States. She said any country banning US beef should also closely examine the quality of other sources of beef.

Farmer sees a bright side

One Whidbey Island farmer may benefit from greater interest in his naturally-grown beef, in light of the mad cow situation.

“Our animals aren’t susceptible to it,” said Ron Muzzall of Muzzall Farms near Oak Harbor. His daughters, Jennifer, Roshel and Jessica operate 3 Sisters Cattle Company and sell products to local grocers and residents. They’ve been selling their beef since last spring.

Muzzall said his cattle are locally born and raised and are fed grass and hay — two items that are void of contaminates that spread mad cow disease.

The disease is spread through a protein supplement once fed to cows. That practice was banned in 1997, but it appears that the infected cow was born before the ban took effect.

“We’ve got some lingering problems and this is one of them,” Muzzall said of the situation in Eastern Washington.

Muzzall admitted that he is taking a hit from falling beef prices, but on the bright side he is finding new interest in his grass-fed cattle.

He recently received inquiries from St. Louis and Florida about his product. The 3 Sisters company is currently in short supply of beef. Muzzall pointed out that calves need to be raised before they can be sold.

The Muzzalls have approximately 400 head of cattle on their farm that is split between their beef and dairy operations. Muzzall said his dairy business isn’t affected as dairy products aren’t associated with the disease.

Reports about the first cow diagnosed with mad cow disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, came two days before Christmas. The neural disease is caused by an aberrant protein and is related to scrapie found in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, according to information provided by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The diseased cow came from a large dairy farm in Mabton located 40 miles southeast of Yakima. It was discovered at a slaughter facility in Moses Lake.

The infected cow was born in Alberta, Canada.

According to information from the agriculture department, there is a low risk of humans contracting the fatal disease, as it infects the neural tissue of cows — a part that people typically don’t consume.

Muzzall said there isn’t any evidence of the disease being found in a cow’s muscle tissue.

However, the herd where the cattle originated from is quarantined and 10,000 pounds of beef have been recalled.

Local grocer recalls hamburger

One Oak Harbor grocer, Albertson’s, had to remove pre-packaged ground beef from its Oregon, Washington and Idaho stores, including its Oak Harbor store.

This ground beef originated from Oregon-based Interstate Meats, a ground beef supplier that received beef from the Moses Lake house.

People who bought the recalled ground beef can return it and receive a full refund.

“We’re taking these steps with an abundance of caution,” said Karianne Cole, spokesperson for Albertson’s, adding that the grocer is working closely with the USDA through the situation. Health officials have offered assurances that the recalled meat is likely safe even if it was consumed.

It appears that the other major grocers on North Whidbey Island didn’t have any of the recalled beef.

In addition to the grass-fed beef from 3 Sisters, the beef found in Ennen’s typically comes from the Midwest.

Safeway didn’t receive any meat from the Centralia-based distributor involved in the recall.

“We have none of the recalled product,” said Cherie Myers, director of public and governmental affairs for Safeway.

She said Safeway gets its beef from all over the nation with two of its dominant sources being Denver and Mount Vernon.

Patty Syreen, meat manager at the Prairie Center in Coupeville, said she hasn’t fielded many questions concerning diseased beef but it has affected some of her sales.

“We’ve seen a decline, but not as much as we expected,” Syreen said, adding that none of their beef, which is supplied by Associated Grocers, was part of the recall.

Marketplace Food and Drug is in a similar situation.

Chips Pike, store manager, said concerns over mad cow disease hasn’t hurt business.

Marketplace is also part of Associated Grocers and didn’t have to return any beef.

“It’s not affecting us at all,” Pike said. “We had a record week.”

Gayle Saran contributed to this story.

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