How now, Mad Cow?

It hasn't been a happy holiday season for Pennsylvania's dairy farmers. Though the Bush administration has taken steps to boost confidence in the safety of U.S. beef in the wake of the case of mad-cow disease in Washington state, prices for beef and beef futures continue to fall the maximum allowable amount in each day of trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The sale of dairy bulls and veal calves provides a secondary source of income for Pennsylvania dairy farmers and the impact of the down-spiralling beef prices may mean that counties with large concentrations of dairy farms - our Chester, Berks, and Lancaster counties - will suffer economically.

"With the poor milk prices last year, the price of beef helped us limp along," said James Hertzler, a dairy farmer in Elverson. "I fatten my own bull calves to sell them for beef," he said. "Every dairy cow is ultimately a beef cow."

At local auction houses, such as New Holland Sale Stables where Hertzler and many local producers sell their calves, the prices for live cattle have already taken a dramatic hit. Still, the future of producers may be linked more closely to local buying patterns and consumer confidence than to national beef-industry prices.

"Customers haven't even asked us about it," said Lynford Martin, co-owner and meat department manager at Martins Country Market, in Morgantown. Though the past week has seen slow beef sales, Martin added, it is a traditional slow-down in this region where pork-with-sauerkraut is more typical holiday fare.

At Shady Maple Farm Market in East Earl, store-owner Marvin Weaver concurs, saying that the mad-cow announcement has had little impact on meat sales so far.

Hertzler believes it is crucial for consumers to maintain confidence in the U.S.D.A. system, and we agree. Media buzz and sound-bites from presidential hopefuls notwithstanding, federal meat inspection and regulation in the U.S., has been, and continues to be, among the most stringent in the world.

We applaud the "aggressive" additional strictures the Department of Agriculture implemented this past week - including the ban on meat from 'downer' cows. With its swift and resolute move, the U.S.D.A. restored our confidence as consumers. That they managed to do it without gutting our local dairy beef industry is both promising and remarkable.

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