Bring On the Bovine

In December 23, a dairy cow at a Washington State slaughter facility tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, the first such occurrence in the United States. U.S. officials now say evidence suggests that the infected cow was born in Canada in 1997, before the enactment of bans that prohibited the use of cattle feed containing protein from cows, goats or sheep. "Even with the finding of this single cow, the U.S. remains at very low risk," USDA chief veterinary officer Ron DeHaven recently told reporters.

Nevertheless, some countries continue to ban American beef imports. And American vegans, animal rights activists and other sources are warning consumers not to trust the USDA. Janice Blue, the host of Go Vegan Texas!, which is broadcast Mondays at 11 a.m. on KPFT/90.1 FM, recently did a two-hour special called "The Government Cover-Up: Risking Human Health to Protect the Beef Industry."

So what effect is all this having on Houston's notoriously beef-crazed restaurant patrons? To get a quick reading, I call Tommy Tollett, the owner of two Tommy's Seafood Steakhouses, one in Clear Lake and a new one at 11660 Westheimer.

"Have you seen any decrease in business at your steak houses since the mad cow outbreak?" I ask him.

"No," he replies.

"Any increase in seafood sales versus steaks?" I ask.

"No," he says again.

"Are customers voicing any concerns at all about mad cow disease?" I query.

"None," he tells me.

"Well, should consumers be worried?" I ask.

"That's not for me to say," says Tollett. "If the information the USDA is feeding us is correct, there shouldn't be any concern."

But as it turns out, Tommy Tollett has a few concerns of his own.

"I have an attitude about it," he says. "Feeding cattle their own species is disgusting. That's enough to make you want to stop eating beef right there. That should never have happened. It's a Soylent Green-type situation."

Tollett buys his steaks from the Certified Black Angus program, which cherry-picks well-marbled cuts of beef for quality-conscious restaurants and consumers. But the cost of beef has spiked sharply in the last few months, and rising food costs are taking a lot of the profit out of the steak-house business.

Tollett thinks American cattlemen have been guilty of some opportunistic price gouging in the wake of the Canadian mad cow outbreak. "We've been very happy with our beef over the years," he says. "But in the last few months, they've hiked prices 35 to 40 percent." Now, if the price of beef plummets, then the American cattle industry will be getting exactly what it deserves, Tollett intimates. Consumers may end up benefiting from mad cow disease if exports are reduced and a glut of beef hits the market, lowering prices.

"We need to learn from this," Tollett says. "First, we need to learn that same-species feeding is wrong. The other thing is, we need to be able to trace our beef. We need to know where every steer came from and where it went. The government needs to step in and handle that."

I asked Tollett if he's eating any less beef himself these days.

"No," he says. "Personally, I still eat a bone-in rib eye at least twice a week."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh