Monday, December 29, 2003

Hawaii in
mad cow recall

U.S. inspectors will visit
isle retailers to ensure
proper disposal of any
recalled beef products

Meat from a Holstein sick with mad cow disease could have reached retail markets in Hawaii, Guam and six other states but poses no health risk to consumers, agricultural officials said yesterday.

Compliance inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Inspection Service are expected to visit Hawaii retailers suspected of receiving recalled items and hold the beef products until they are properly disposed, according to state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi.

It is unknown which Hawaii retailers -- if any -- are carrying the meat because most retailers' district offices were closed yesterday, she said.

State agricultural officials were notified yesterday morning that meat from the sick Holstein could have reached the islands. Employees at grocery retail-chain stores such as Star Market, Times Supermarket and Safeway said they had not received notice to recall any of their beef products.

Kenneth Petersen, a U.S. Agriculture Department veterinarian, said yesterday that investigators have determined some of the meat from the diseased dairy cow slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state could have gone to Hawaii, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Guam.

Earlier, officials had said most of the meat went to Washington and Oregon, with lesser amounts to California and Nevada, for distribution to consumers.

Petersen said the slaughtered cow was deboned at Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., and sent Dec. 12 to two other plants, Willamette Valley Meat and Interstate Meat, both near Portland, Ore.

He has said that much of the meat is being held by those facilities.

"The recalled meat represents essentially zero risk to consumers," said Petersen, of the USDA's food safety agency.

He said the parts most likely to carry infection -- the brain, spinal cord and lower intestine -- were removed before meat from the infected cow was cut and processed for human consumption.

Tim Richards, of Kahua Ranch, who serves as veterinarian to a number of livestock populations on the Big Island, agreed, saying that the "the likelihood is extremely remote" for any contaminated bits from the cow to exist in the state's beef supply.

"It's real important that people don't have a knee-jerk reaction and panic on things," he said. "Should people be gravely concerned about it? My answer is no. Most likely, the meat was processed into hamburger. None of the infected tissues are put into hamburger."

Mad cow disease, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a concern because humans who eat brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop a related brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In Britain, 143 people died of it after an outbreak of mad cow in the 1980s.

Despite their assurances of food safety, federal officials have taken the precaution of recalling 10,000 pounds of meat from the infected cow and from 19 other cows slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, Wash.

Because it is not known exactly what portions of the 10,000 pounds slaughtered there that day actually came from the diseased cow, health authorities must work on the possibility that some meat from the diseased cow could have reached any location where any part of the yield was distributed.

Officials say they are still recovering meat and will not know how much has been returned until later this week.

"We expect by now that many of the customers who may have purchased some of this meat have been notified by the grocery chain or other store where perhaps they purchased it," Petersen said.

Supermarket chains in the West -- Albertson's, Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo Foods -- have voluntarily removed ground-beef products from the affected distributors. Safeway has said it will look for another supplier.

Alexander Winslow, spokesman for Safeway stores in northern California and Hawaii, said he could not comment on the latest update yesterday. But he did say the chain has recalled ground-beef products from its Oregon stores as a precautionary measure.

Jacinto Sanchez, assistant manager of the meat department at Daiei on Kaheka Street, said the store received a letter Wednesday from National Beef, a Kansas City beef supplier, stating that they do not receive any cattle from Washington.

Officials from Foodland Super Market Ltd. were not available for comment yesterday.

Despite the recent news, a number of Hawaii restaurants that specialize in beef say they have seen no decrease in sales.

Paul Ah Cook, director of operations at Ruth's Chris Steak House, said he has seen no "negative response from guests" and is also experiencing a busy season.

"The industry has been through this many times," he said. "We'll get through this again."

Richards said he is watching sales of Kahua Ranch meat very closely, and so far there has been no drop in demand.

"My biggest concern is that our public is going to overreact," he said. "The amount of problem we have is extremely minimal. We have one cow (sick) of literally 80 million animals."

State inspectors will also increase testing for the disease in Hawaii, according to the Agriculture Department.

Investigators have tentatively traced the first U.S. cow with mad cow disease to Canada. This could help determine the scope of the outbreak and might even limit the economic damage to the American beef industry.

Star-Bulletin reporters Rosemarie Bernardo and Mary Vorsino and the Associated Press contributed to this story.


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