HELENA - In an effort to support the cattle industry and assuage jitters over mad cow disease, Gov. Judy Martz will publicly eat a roast beef sandwich Friday.
Martz will eat the sandwich during the noon break at the cattle sale at the Montana Livestock Co. in Ramsay. But she won't be eating just any old beef. Martz will be eating meat from a cow raised and processed in Montana - meat that has a lower chance of being infected with mad cow disease or other ailments, according to some livestock officials and scientists.
"I'm not saying (eating any beef) is dangerous," said George Carlson, director and senior scientist at the McLaughlin Research Institute, a scientific research facility in Great Falls. "But it's obviously safer to eat stuff you know. Locally produced and fed beef is certainly less of a risk than mass-produced, processed beef."
Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, agreed.
"We steadfastly say that all beef is probably safe, but Montana critters are more safe than the normal safe," he said. "Montana livestock producers take pride in the care we give our animals."
Cattle are thought to get mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, from eating rendered parts of other infected cattle, usually as bone meal or ruminant products added to their feed. Humans can get a similar brain wasting disease from eating meat from infected animals.
One infected carcass can spread the disease to larger batches of meat during packing, Carlson said.
"They have advanced meat recovery systems that can add nervous tissue to the meat, inadvertently," he said.
Hamburger processed in large packing plants can also be made from meat from several cows, especially older, retired dairy cows which, by virtue of the fact that they live longer, are more likely to harbor BSE.
"This disease takes a long time to develop," he said, and older cows are more likely to develop BSE "just by chance."
There are no large animal packing facilities in Montana, said Charles Howe, owner of the Ross Peak Ranch, a chemical-free cattle ranch near Bozeman.
Montana's largest cattle export is feeder calves - young cattle that are generally sold to feedlots out of state and slaughtered and packed in large packing plants out of state, Pilcher said. Once these calves enter the national beef supply, it is almost impossible to track them. Consequently, consumers don't know if the beef they buy at a grocery story in Billings or Missoula came from Montana or some place else, he said.
The only way to know for sure that you are getting a Montana-raised cow is to buy it from a Montana rancher and have it custom processed, generally by a smaller, local packing house, Howe said.
Other ranchers, like Jeanne Charter, who runs a ranch near Billings with her husband, said that while she doesn't think BSE is a concern for any meat eater, buying beef grown in Montana helps the locally economy more than buying just any old beef.
"We would like nothing better than to promote Montana beef, grown in Montana and packaged in Montana," he said.
Martz's beef-eating will cap American Beef Week, a proclamation by eight governors including Martz, made in the wake of the nation's first confirmed case of mad cow disease, said Karen Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Livestock. Beef week ends Jan. 10.
Martz and representatives from several cattle associations and state livestock and public health agencies will attend the auction and have lunch provided by the auction yards.
"Beef is a staple in her family," said Chuck Butler, a spokesman for the governor. "The governor wants to show her support for the beef industry."