Will meat safety overrule taste?

To set itself apart from fast-food titan McDonald's Corp., the publicly traded Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard in July made a marketing to-do of switching to "all-natural beef" -- which the company defines as having no hormones, no animal by-products in the feed, and complete traceability of patties back to pasture.

The move, which at the time seemed costly and risky, suddenly looks brilliant in the wake of the nation's first mad-cow case. Good Times -- owned by Good Times Restaurants Inc., based in Golden, Colo. -- is scrambling to roll out advertisements touting the safety of its beef.

"We certainly feel better about our decision now," said Boyd Hoback, the company's chief executive. Discovery of mad cow in the United States. "plays into our hands," he said.

Step aside, taste. Safety soon could become the hottest marketing factor for beef. To date, food companies, even those that go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their meat, have tried to sidestep the issue for fear it would ignite more public concerns than it would erase.

But after the discovery late last month of a Holstein infected with mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in Washington State, industry experts expect the issue to move front and center.

From field to plate

Roger Viadero, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector general who now heads Ernst & Young's national agribusiness-practice unit, predicts that in light of the mad-cow concerns, beef purveyors should -- and will -- start advertising the safety measures they take.

Already, some food and restaurant companies test imported beef for mad-cow disease, said Viadero, who has helped Ernst & Young develop a system to trace foods from field to plate. But those businesses have been loathe to advertise their tracking practices, he said.

In Japan, every cow slaughtered is tested for BSE. If the U.S. government, which tests only one in 1,700 cattle, proposed a Japan-like program, "I'm not opposed to it," said Allen J. Bernstein, chairman and chief executive of Morton's Restaurant Group Inc., which owns 64 high-end steakhouses across the United States.

The chain, based in New Hyde Park, N.Y., has a restaurant on Charles Street in Baltimore.

Coleman Natural Products Inc. -- the nation's largest supplier of natural beef, that is from cattle never fed animal-by products, hormones or antibiotics -- warns that testing of all U.S. cattle could be too costly. The company, also based in Golden, Colo., sells beef to Good Times and large supermarket chains.

Mel Coleman Jr., the company's chairman, said he backs testing of sick cows, for example. "However, if this gets so much publicity and blown out of proportion, I'm not for that knee-jerk reaction."

But, if consumers start demanding it, "the industry might not have a choice," said Rob Hurlbut, president of Niman Ranch Inc., an Oakland, Calif., supplier of beef, which says it feeds its cattle only vegetarian feed, and tracks its cattle from birth to slaughter.

Niman supplies beef to expensive restaurants across the country and also retails to individual customers online.

Assuaging fears

No restaurant chain has more experience dealing with consumer reaction to mad cow than McDonald's, which saw its European sales fall 10 percent in the fall of 2000. (McDonald's declines to discuss any possible marketing campaign related to the U.S. case.)

To win back customers in Europe, McDonald's took aggressive steps with graphic ads showing the chain's burgers contain "no offal, no brain, no spinal cord" or other parts where scientists believe the disease resides. The chain, based in Oak Brook, Ill., also invited customers to visit its European beef suppliers.

CKE Restaurants Inc., operator of burger chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., said that if customers seek reassurance, the company would consider advertising the safety of its meat. "Right now, we don't see the need," said Andrew Puzder, the firm's president and chief executive.

The debate also is raging at grocery chains.

Margaret Wittenberg, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market Inc., a 145-unit grocery chain based in Austin, Texas, said Whole Foods -- which has seven stores in Maryland, including at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, in Mount Washington and in Annapolis -- would consider supporting wider government testing of slaughtered cattle.

She pointed to Europe's program, which tests all slaughtered cattled over the age of 30 months.