The confirmation of Canada's first case of the human strain of mad cow disease again raised public fears the little-understood disease has spread to North America.
Authorities quickly assured the public there was no evidence suggesting the disease had entered the Canadian food supply. The victim had lived in Britain at various times, and most likely contracted the new variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease there, authorities said.
Nevertheless, the news had immediate impact on publicly traded American restaurant chains. Shares of McDonald's Corp., Yum Brands and other U.S. quick-service chains serving beef products dropped sharply.
For consumers, the proximity of the case to the United States may give it greater significance, but the impact will likely be marginal, industry observers told SN.
"Canada is pretty close to home," said Robert Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food-service consulting firm based in Chicago. "When it's close to home, antennas are raised. Things like that, that are well-publicized, will get consumers attention," he said.
The Canadian case actually was the second North American instance of nvCJD. The United States in April reported the first victim, a British woman who was living in Florida, but likely contracted the disease in her native country.
A beef industry spokesman told SN the cases are not unexpected, and should not raise doubts about the safety of American or Canadian beef. Authorities even expected the news, given the fact there are people living in the States who would have been exposed to the disease while living in the United Kingdom during the height of the disease's outbreak, said Rick McCarty, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Denver.
"We have assumed for a number of years that cases will be found in countries that have no [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] problem," McCarty told SN. "People move around a lot internationally."
People acquire the disease through consumption of tainted beef, and health experts believe the disease incubates for several years in humans before symptoms appear. NvCJD first surfaced in the 1980s in the United Kingdom.
The United States has taken several steps to safeguard beef. In 1989, the United States imposed the first import ban, barring any live cattle from countries with BSE. In 1997, the ban was expanded to all of Europe. That same year, the United States banned the use of potentially risky protein in bagged and bulk feeds for cattle.
"Despite hearing a lot of scary stuff about mad cow disease, consumers in the U.S. are pretty confident that U.S. beef is safe," he said. "This case shouldn't change that."
The Canadian report came on the heels of ConAgra Beef's massive recall of nearly 19 million pounds of beef, following a food-poisoning outbreak. At least 34 people from 10 states had been infected with E. coli 0157:H7, believed to be associated with ConAgra's product, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The death of an elderly Ohio woman also may be linked to the recalled product.
As large and well-publicized as the ConAgra case was, it doesn't appear to be affecting consumer opinions of the safety of beef.
According to the NPD Group's Food Safety Monitor, an every-other-week online poll of 500 adults, the beef recall had no impact on consumer attitudes regarding food safety. The July data also showed no reduction in the percentage of consumers who said they planned to eat steak and burgers, compared to the numbers for the same period last year, an NPD official told SN.