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Mad Cow Fallout Hits Washington French Fries

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 2,000 tons of frozen French fries, pre-fried in beef tallow, sit in limbo in warehouses and ports -- rejected by buyers in three Asian countries because of the recent mad cow scare.

The Washington State Potato Commission estimates the French fries, turned back by customers in China, Japan and South Korea, are worth more than $500,000.

Some potato industry representatives are worried that other nations may follow, even though government scientists say mad cow disease cannot be transmitted through beef fat.

“There’s no danger, just the perception of danger. It’s all psychological,” said Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director of the commission, which represents about 300 potato growers in Washington state.

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Executive director Pat Boss blamed it on hysteria caused by mad cow.

The disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats holes in the brains of cows, resulting in death. About 150 people in Europe died in the last decade from a variant of BSE, possibly from eating contaminated beef. There have been no reports of human illness as a result of mad cow disease in North America.

Most of the French fries were in shipping containers headed to Asia when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Dec. 23 that the disease was discovered in a dairy cow in south-central Washington state.

It was the first confirmed case of mad cow disease in this country.

Shortly after the announcement, the shipping containers were held in ports, turned away or sometimes sent back to processors.

Bonaudi said just under 100 shipping containers are still being held in ports and warehouses, both in the Pacific Northwest and in Asia.

Trade representatives are holding meetings with government and health officials in all three countries to try to reassure them that the fries are safe, Bonaudi said.

She said it was too early to tell what the long-term effects would be on the industry.

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Although neighboring Idaho is known as the Potato State, Washington is the No. 1exporter of French fries in the nation. The industry generates nearly $3 billion in revenue each year. Nearly 90% of the potatoes are shipped out of state, a large portion to Asia.

Bonaudi said potato products worth $45 million were shipped to South Korea China last year, and potatoes worth $152 million went to Japan.

Most Washington French fries are prefried in vegetable oil and a small percentage are prefried in beef tallow, said Bruce Huffaker, publisher of the North American Potato Market News and a former French-fry buyer for Burger King Corp.

A lot of fries shipped abroad are prefried in tallow at the request of the buyers. Some people just like the taste. But Huffaker said this practice has been on the decline for 15 years, ever since officials identified other health risks associated with beef fat.

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Huffaker says the potato industry should be nervous for another reason: “Meat and potatoes are complementary foods,” he said. When beef consumption goes up, potato consumption tends to follow. The same when it goes down.

He said if the mad cow scare has a long-term negative effect on beef demand, the potato industry would feel it.


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