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Ground for Controversy: Local restaurant owners insist that beef is safe--and cheaper than ever.

Beefing Up

After mad cow, is the barbecue still on?

By Aaron Robinson

WE LIVE on a continent with an estimated 60 million­plus head count of cattle. Ninety thousand cows are slaughtered every 24 hours. Out of the 900 million cattle slaughtered in the last decade, the USDA tested only roughly 12,000 for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, mad cow).

One good thing about the discovery two months ago of the first American cow infected with mad cow is that it sparked some much-needed curiosity. Mad cow's human variation--known as the incurable Variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease--can take 10 to 30 years before showing symptoms; the problem is an easy one not to think about.

I'm as guilty as the next person who luxuriates in urban ignorance--knowing beef as the tasty red matter wrapped in plastic, not as the hanging carcass. Lee Bassian, of San Jose­based Bassian Farms, respected purveyor of fine meats, poultry and seafood, says, "I think that the biggest mistake, the biggest preconceived notion that many Americans have is that all cattle ranches are the same, when they are all very different." Add to that the fact that a lot of people continue to stand behind beef consumption, including restaurant owners who claim resolutely that the mad cow dilemma has not affected beef sales and/or their opinions on beef production--in fact, one chef mentioned that the only thing that has changed is that "beef prices have dropped--and that's a good thing!"--and it's hard to know what to think.

Attempting to remedy my preconceptions, I tried making an appointment to tour a slaughterhouse but was told I would have to waive my rights to write about what I saw. The next best thing was to meet with Bassian and Jim Stump, chef and owner of A.P. Stump's restaurant in San Jose. Bassian explained the slaughtering process to me: "It is more humane and sanitary than ever before. The cattle walk up a curved ramp and into this massive, state-of-the-art facility. Two mattresses lift them up under the belly, which comforts them. ... Before they know anything is happening, a swift divot is taken out of their of their skull, removing a piece of the brain. This renders the cow unconscious, yet still keeps the heart beating--which is important for sanitation reasons. The cow is then hung upside down with its throat slit. With the heart still beating, the cow technically, though already brain dead, bleeds to death. 'Bleeding' the cow this way is considered kosher-style killing. A veterinarian then inspects the head, which hangs on a hook next to the body, and when the head receives a clean bill of health, the body gets the OK, [and] they make their cuts and ship out the meat."

Cows, like other grazing animals, are ruminants, which is to say that their digestive systems only have the ability to convert grasses. Corn, grains and animal byproduct, which are fed to cows to rapidly fatten them up, cause severe digestive problems. Years ago, cattle were slaughtered at 4 to 5 years of age. Today, by feeding cows corn, rendered animals and growth hormones, they are ready to be slaughtered at 14­16 months.

Though many ascribe these methods to greed, cattle ranchers claim that it is merely a case of supply and demand. I've often read that to counteract the fatal affects these diets inflict on the ruminant system, cows must be constantly administered antibiotics, which get into our bloodstream and mess with our immune system. Bassian protests this by saying, "Bradley Farms out of Texas," one of the farms he buys his meat products from, "feed their cattle corn and alfalfa but use absolutely no antibiotics."

Local chef Jim Stump reaffirms this: "Cows graze in fields eating grass, alfalfa and hay before they are put into feedlots. There, they spend that last 90 to 200 days of their lives fattening up on grain and corn until finally taken to the slaughterhouse." About purely grass-fed beef, Stump says, "People don't like it, because they are used to rich flavor, heavy fat--grass-fed is lean and bland." Bassian describes grass-fed beef as "Horrific! When I first started purveying organic and grass-fed beef, I could not move the product."

In regard to mad cow, Bassian says, "The mad cow problem is more a threat to dairy cows than to meat cows." This is true because dairy cows are kept on a concrete surface that can be easily washed down for sanitary purposes. They live five, six, even seven years on this hard surface. Eventually, their joints become bad, and after they slip and fall a few times, they can become shaky or even unable to walk--the same symptoms as mad cow. At that point, they are labeled as "downer cows." Up until the mad cow dilemma, it was legal to slaughter these animals and sell them as commercial beef, but the USDA has since initiated a temporary ban on this practice.

Bassian says, "The problem with this is that the dairy farmer has no compensation for not putting that animal into the food chain. Too many dairy cows become downer cows, and not being able to slaughter them and sell the meat would devastate the hardworking dairy farmer who is not a wealthy person. There needs to be incentive, government money."

Though the practice of feeding cow parts to cows was banned by the FDA in 1997, it was left legal for cows to be fed parts of chickens and pigs that have eaten cow parts. Experts fret that because rendered parts and feces often intermix in the process of becoming cow feed, this cycle will bring mad cow back around full circle. Thankfully, on Jan. 26 the FDA banned another gruesome practice: feeding cow blood to calves. Cow blood, being rich in calcium and protein, was being used to wean calves from their mother's milk so that this milk could be processed for humans. Some experts believe that the infected residue of an '80s blood formula from Britain found its way to Canada and infected the livestock there, and that's how BSE got to America--truth is, no one knows.

In the end, mad cow is just another addition to the recent inundation of global catastrophes--bird flu, swine fever, SARS--that seem to arise out of practices geared toward mass production. One vegan enthusiast told me, "These are the modern-day plagues, the wrath of God!" I don't know if I'd go that far, but I would take Jim Stump's advice: "Stay informed, ask questions, and support the farmers who are doing it right."

Become familiar with labels. Loopholes in USDA standards leave us with only three reliable ones when it comes to finding the farmers who are doing it right. Look for: 1. Certified Organic; 2. 100 percent Grass Fed; 3. No Animal By-products. To demand better standards and testing, email the USDA at [email protected].

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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