Burgers to die for

UC Davis mad-cow experts sing the praises of In-N-Out

University of California, Davis, professor John Maas enjoys the burger preferred by three out of four mad-cow experts.

University of California, Davis, professor John Maas enjoys the burger preferred by three out of four mad-cow experts.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

—Bible citation found on the underside of every In-N-Out soda cup

Just hours after Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman finished reassuring the American public that mad-cow disease’s arrival in the United States was no cause for consumer concern—“I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner,” she insisted, “and we remain confident in the safety of our food supply”—University of California, Davis, professor and mad-cow expert Dean Cliver was putting his money where his mouth is.

“Well, we had all my kids home, and we had already bought a turkey,” said Cliver of his holiday dinner. “But the night that I heard the Ann Veneman thing and responded to a whole bunch of media inquiries, why, I went home and had a steak dinner. And I’ve eaten plenty of beef since then, so I have no hang-ups about that.”

Cliver is one of a half-dozen mad-cow experts that UC Davis’ news service is trotting out to journalists whose hunger for fresh quotes is as palpable as Veneman’s own hankering for that beefy holiday feast. And though our secretary of agriculture, a former ag-industry lobbyist, clearly came to Washington to praise the beef industry rather than to bury it, UC Davis’s mad-cow experts can be trusted to possess the objectivity that befits men of science. Then again, they are livestock experts on the payroll of one of the nation’s most prestigious ag schools, a profession that’s unlikely to attract vegans.

Cliver, for instance, maintains his faith in science while viewing the mad-cow threat as a kind of numbers game. “When it comes to ground beef, we tend to buy mail-order in order to get irradiated ground beef, and that’s because I am ever so much more concerned about E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella than I am about prions,” he said, referring to the ingredient that makes otherwise tasty cows deadly. Cliver said the disease has turned up in fewer than 150 humans. “Compared to how many have died from E. coli 0157, why, that’s a pittance.”

Nor was John Maas, a Cooperative Extension veterinarian at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, swayed by heightened concerns about the deadly and incurable disease. “We had prime-rib roast,” said Maas of his own meaty Christmas feast. “And—I’m not kidding—my sons are college students; they made a mountain of mashed potatoes. In fact, they put a little flag on it. It looked like Mount Everest, a mountain of mashed potatoes to go along with the prime rib. And we had vegetables—I mean, just typical ranch fare.”

With his wife up visiting the family ranch in Shasta County, Maas has been spending time at his favorite fast-food restaurant. “I love hamburgers, and my favorite is In-N-Out; I’ve got to be honest,” said the professor, who’s visited the Davis franchise at least three times since Veneman’s announcement. “They are so fresh, and they’re such a great value. I mean, it’s just great! I order a double burger with no onions and extra crispy on the fries and a Diet Coke. I go at least once a week.”

James Cullor—the university’s authority on the history and biology of mad-cow disease, said he also favors In-N-Out and usually opts for the “No. 2” (cheeseburger, fries and a soft drink). His colleague Bennie Osburn—an expert in livestock infectious diseases—cast a third vote for In-N-Out, though he said he forgoes the cheese and usually skips the onions.

As for their own holiday dinner fare, Osburn and Cullor also rose to the secretary of agriculture’s beef challenge.

“Yes, I did,” enthused Osburn. “I had a New York strip.”

“Oh sure,” agreed Cullor. “In fact, Christmas Day, I had a big roast beef. I’m not worried at all in that regard,” he added, noting that (a) “they found the cow; they’re tracing back the meat and getting it under control,” (b) European experience indicates “muscle tissue and milk are both safe” in terms of being free from prions, and (c) incidents of the disease being contracted by Europeans have declined in recent years. “Based on that science and that long-term evidence, I think that we’re OK.”

In fact, of the four UC Davis profs interviewed by SN&R, the only significant disagreement came from Cliver, who recently served on a bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Well, I don’t eat out that much,” said the one mad-cow expert who doesn’t share his colleagues’ In-N-Out obsession. “But I guess I’m as good a customer at Mickey D’s as I am at any other.”