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A Howard Hughes nation?

00:00AM Oct 20, 2008

Steve Cornett

How "safe" do you think our beef supply should be?
If your answer is 100%, you're part of the problem, not the solution. We—producers, consumers and regulators—must be realistic. There is a point at which diligence slides into paranoia.

I'm not arguing against beef safety. I'm simply pointing out that no food or activity is 100% safe. We can be safer than we are, but if Howard Hughes' miserable final years prove anything, it's that we can be "too safe."
Hughes was the dashing billionaire, richest man in the world at the time, who spent the last 10 years of his life in a germ phobic shell. Not surprisingly, he died anyway, and the autopsy indicated he was severely malnourished. 

It comes to mind because of a report from the U.S. Meat Export Federation about a conference the group sponsored in Japan...
Recall, please, that a few years ago, Oprah said she would never eat another hamburger because of BSE. Google "mad cow" and "death" and you get more than a million hits. This is the disease that has disrupted international beef trade, costing U.S. cattle producers many millions and worsening the herd reduction.
People, some people, and especially some people in the press, worry about BSE a lot. But Dr. Masahiko Ariji told the conference in Japan that "the risk of dying from BSE is one of the smallest, least measurable food-related risks."
Japanese citizens, he calculates, are 1,200 times more likely to die from a wasp sting than from the human form of BSE. They are 300,000 times more likely to die mountain climbing, and 380,000 times for likely to drown in the bathtub. And they are, obviously, quite unlikely to die climbing mountains or bathing. 
And that, by the way, applies in a country where there was a fairly serious outbreak of BSE in cows, not the U.S. where there has never been a documented case of a locally contracted case in humans.
The BSE scare is overblown, and the public is beginning to realize it. As USMEF's Phil Seng pointed out, the percentage of Japanese consumers averse to U.S. beef has fallen from 73% three years ago to 39% now.
At the same time, Korean attitudes are obviously changing was well. The Korean Embassy this week said that some 20,000 tons of U.S. beef had cleared customs since exports resumed in June. The beef is—despite all the hoopla of earlier this year—finding ready consumers where stores are willing to risk the wrath of the activists.
There is still some paranoia about BSE, and it isn't limited to Japan and Korea. But it is increasingly being recognized as just that—an unreasonable fear "based not on reality," as Webster puts it.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at