I am a carnivore.
I enjoy poultry and fish as center plate entrees, with lots of starch and a few veggies on the side. I relish racks of lamb, pork chops and heapings of ribs, dripping with sauce.
But above all, beef is my preferred meat. Being born in the month of May qualified me as a bovine, the female manifestation of Taurus the Bull, so I know about mad cows. And I grew up in Chicago when it was home to the Chicago Stockyards, once the largest livestock market and meat processing center in the world and a great tourist attraction. Beef is in my blood, and vice versa.
So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the recent volatility in cattle futures caught my eye. Unless you just came out from under a rock, you probably know that this country's beef business -- a $40 billion industry, the largest sector of U.S. agriculture -- has been embroiled in a crisis since last month, when a cow was found with bovine spongiform encephalopathy - better known as mad cow disease.
We last heard of it a few years ago, when it tore through the British beef business. Now U.S. beef imports have been halted by 30 nations that account for about 10 percent of our annual production and more than $4 billion in annual sales. The timing of the crisis couldn't be worse for the North American cattle busines; Canadian and U.S. cattle businesses are virtually interchangeable, depending on supply and demand.
Before December 23, when the infected cow was slaughtered and the disease discovered, beef from Canada and the U.S. was the most sought-after in the world, and our cattle industry had been doing well, from ranchers to meat packers. Wholesale beef prices had recently soared 50 percent to record highs, thanks to short supply -- due to slim profits the number of cattle was at a 7-year low -- and increased demand fueled by an explosion in low- and no-carbohydrate diets such as Atkins and South Beach. Even better for industry margins, the U.S. government's decision last summer to stop importing live Canadian cows pushed prices thorough the roof. Rather than taking the norm of 120 to 200 days to fatten cattle, ranchers rushed cows to slaughter, meaning less "choice" cuts for consumption, and translating to steak prices nearing $13 a pound.
Then one Holstein cow changed the landscape. Wholesale prices have already fallen 15 percent on fears that, with the export window closed, the U.S. market will be flooded with excess supply. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange saw a dramatic 20 percent drop in live and feeder-cattle prices, wiping out billions of dollars worth of equity. Shares of publicly-traded companies with ties to beef -- including Tyson Foods and ConAgra, home to Swift & Co and Monfort Beef -- were grilled.
And the ripple effect is being felt not only by cattlemen, but by potato farmers that ship frozen French fries cooked in beef tallow.
If you're like me and believe our beef supply is safe -- and 66 percent of us do, according to a Time/CNN poll -- or don't want to quit beef cold turkey, consider corn-fed or grain-fed beef raised here in the U.S. or turn to grass-fed Australian beef, where there has never been a case of mad cow. We've learned from other commodities and crises, a drop in wholesale prices doesn't necessarily translate into a drop in retail cost, but we can hold out hope that the rancher's pain eventually will be our gain, in the form of drastically lower and, dare I say, affordable prices.
If not, maybe we can at least hope this cow madness makes it easier to get reservations at tony restaurants such as The Palm, Morton's or Ruth's Chris.