WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's handling of the mad cow case -- a delicate balance between protecting the health of consumers and of the beef cattle industry -- is being closely watched in farm states crucial in a close presidential race.
The nation's Farm Belt with its rural, more conservative states is at the core of President Bush's electoral strength. But some farm states -- like Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin -- are competitive swing states.
"Politicians are going to have to move very quickly," said political analyst Floyd Ciruli of Colorado, where beef cattle are a crucial part of the state's economy. "The psychological and political implications get well ahead of what's actually happening."
Federal officials announced Tuesday that a Washington state cow slaughtered earlier this month is suspected of having had mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. A British lab provided initial independent confirmation Thursday.
Those in the cattle industry anxiously watched developments that threaten an industry which has enjoyed record prices and profits this year, at least partially because of the increased popularity of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.
Biggest industry in Kansas
"We want the government to make science-based decisions, not decisions based on emotion and distortion," said Dee Likes, executive vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association. The beef cattle industry is the largest industry in Kansas, so any missteps by government officials could severely hurt the state's economy.
President Bush, who was with his family at Camp David, Md., for Christmas, has been receiving regular updates on the situation from agriculture officials, a White House spokesman said.
Democratic presidential candidates offered no comments on the situation.
A top priority for the administration and the beef industry is to prevent widespread panic about the food supply, while determining whether the case is isolated.
"What you don't want is for it to grow into a major national crisis the way it did in Britain," said presidential scholar Charles Jones.
Over the last two decades in Britain, mad cow disease has been blamed for the deaths of 143 people, millions of cattle slaughtered and burned and a devastated domestic beef industry.
Government officials there initially tried to minimize the threat, then took aggressive action to deal with it.
Likes said he wants the Bush administration to move aggressively to reassure overseas markets, especially in Japan, that U.S. beef is safe.
The United States exports almost 10 percent of its beef cattle overseas, so if those markets are closed, more beef will have to be sold domestically.
At the same time that Bush has to deal with the concerns of the beef industry, he also has to address consumer fears.
The critical question of whether U.S. consumers will remain loyal to beef products "depends quite critically on how the government and industry handle this issue," said Derrell Peel, an agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University.
The mad cow case in this country may be isolated -- a situation that would not cause widespread panic and the destruction of many cattle herds, said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.
"The way it could become a political issue is the potential for consumer panic, especially if they find more cows," Buchanan said.
Despite the risks, several political analysts from farm states said they don't believe it is likely to grow into a serious political issue.
"I don't think it has that potential unless it turns out that there's a massive outbreak and the thing is mishandled by the administration," said Paul Zagorski, a political scientist from Kansas. "And I think there's enough experience gleaned from abroad to know what to do." Bush has raised over $100 million to seek a second term next year.