Jan. 8, 2004 – The recent mad cow disease outbreak in the northwestern United States has caused some Virgin Islanders to shy away from beef and elicited minor concern among local cattle producers about the health of their herds.
But a University of the Virgin Islands expert said there is no chance of infection in locally produced beef and only a "slim to none" chance of contamination in beef imported to the territory.
"We've been paying very close attention to it," said Bob Godfrey, animal science program leader at UVI's Agricultural Experiment Station on St. Croix. "One good thing is that the one animal positively identified [for mad cow disease] is located in the northwest United States — about as physically far from us as one could get."
Godfrey said V.I. grocers likely do not get imported beef from that part of the country. And, because of the federal government's rapid response to the problem, very few, if any, contaminated animals made it out of that region.
"The chances of any [disease-infected cattle] getting out to any market, I feel, are minuscule or nonexistent," Godfrey said.
The Virgin Islands imports more than $15 million worth of meat — including pork and chicken — annually, according to a UVI report, while only $0.5 million worth is produced locally.
The Senepol breed of beef cattle is one of the territory's main agricultural commodities, Godfrey said. He said he has spoken with some local herders and, while they expressed concern, they have yet to see negative economic feedback.
"I don't think they will," he said. "It was an isolated case."
Mad cow disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a neurological disease contracted via contaminated feed. Godfrey pointed out that beef cattle in the islands graze on grass and are generally not given commercial feed. "So there's no chance of them getting it," he said.
Local dairy cattle end up in the food supply at some point, Godfrey said, but they also feed on grass and only additives of a vegetative origin.
Actually, the mad cow scare has increased demand for locally produced beef by about 20 percent, according to Hans Lawaetz, president of Annaly Farms Senepol Inc.
Lawaetz's meat is sold and distributed through the Annaly Farms meat market.
"The problem is we do not have enough of the product," Lawaetz said. "We reduced our heard 15 years ago from 1,500 animals to 200, and we're not producing the amount we need."
National media coverage of the single mad cow case in the state of Washington has caused undue alarm in Lawaetz's view. "I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion," he said.
Other countries have stopped importing U.S. beef for consumption for the time being, which Godfrey said is hurting mainland farmers.
While beef prices in the territory appear to have remained steady, a further outbreak of mad cow disease could cause them to drop in the future, Lawaetz said.
"Before this, beef prices in the States had gone 'way up," he said. "Now we're going to have more supply than demand, and prices may start to come down."
Khalid Ali, co-owner of St. Croix's Food Town Supermarket, says he has seen beef sales drop since the mad cow scare began. "It has affected sales," he said. "People seem to be shunning away for a while. We've seen a moderate to medium decrease."
Despite the slump in sales, no customers have expressed any concerns about the disease, Ali said. He added that he does not think the falloff in demand will continue. "It's just a temporary thing. It should fade away in a month or so, since everyone knows the problem has been contained," he said.
Food Town, like most V.I. food markets, imports all of its meat products.
On St. John, Starfish Market manager Lenyse Shomo said meat sales there have not slipped at all, adding that most of the store's customers are island visitors.
"The American public in general is not concerned about our beef supply," Shomo said. "We haven't imported any beef from any of the affected areas, so there's no reason for alarm. Nobody's really said anything about it."
As far as Pueblo International, the territory's largest supermarket chain, Melissa Lammers, senior vice president, said: "There has been no perceptible change in beef sales in the U.S. Virgin Islands or in Puerto Rico since the announcement of an infected cow in Washington state."
About 2 percent of Pueblo's beef is supplied by local farmers to its two stores on St. Thomas and three stores on St. Croix. Beef product orders have actually risen slightly, Lammers said, due to promotional sales on certain cuts.
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