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Mad cow, mad policy.

WHEN GREAT BRITAIN SUFFERED a wave of brain wasting disease deaths attributed to eating beef infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease in the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assured the U.S. public that it had sufficient measures in place to prevent BSE from entering the United States. Consumer groups, animal welfare organizations and environmentalists all urged USDA to enact stronger protections to protect U.S. food stocks and the cattle industry.

USDA and the cattle industry viewed the critics as alarmists, but in December 2003 USDA announced that a cow in Washington state had BSE, confirming the worst fears of administration critics.

The UK discovered the BSE outbreak in 1986. It was linked to feeding cattle feed that included meat and bone meal from infected animals. In 1996, scientists associated eating BSE-infected beef with a human neurological disorder, a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) known as vCJD, an incurable and fatal brain wasting disease. Countries began to ban British beef, but live cattle and feed from the UK had already been exported. Nearly 150 people have already died of vCJD, mostly in the UK.

Although the United States imposed its import ban in 1989, expanded the ban to the rest of Europe a few years later and enacted new regulations on feeding cattle bone meal and cattle meat, consumer groups insisted that the regulatory approach was too weak to ensure BSE did not enter the U.S. livestock population. Loopholes for potentially risky materials in U.S. cattle feed, enforcement of the feed regulations and testing for BSE were weak.

The U.S. rules prohibited using bone meal and meat in cattle feed, but allowed it for pig and chicken feed. In turn, meat from pigs and chickens raised on feed with cattle meat could be used in feed for cattle. Even these rules were inadequately enforced. A 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that the USDA measures failed to sufficiently ensure BSE-infected animals or products were eliminated or even kept out of the human food supply. In 2003, a Food and Drug Administration database listed 300 companies that were in violation of the feed regulations, double the number listed in 2002.

"As long as the U.S. federal oversight is weaker than in other nations and loopholes in mad cow prevention exist," says John Kinsman, president of Family Farm Defenders, "the safest way for individuals to avoid the disease is to eat organic, grass-fed beef."

The testing regime was similarly weak. USDA tested less than 2 percent of downer cows--cows that collapse and die for no apparent reason, a potential indicator of BSE--for BSE. Between 1990 and 2003, 57,000 total cows were tested, 0.01 percent of the 390 million cattle slaughtered over the period. In comparison, Europe tests 100 percent of its downer cows and 25 percent of all cattle. Japan tests every cow.

USDA relied on a risk analysis prepared by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that the regulations were sufficiently rigorous. Consumer and environmental groups have vociferously criticized the Harvard center for being overly sympathetic to business concerns about regulatory costs. It is partially funded by a bevy of big businesses and trade associations including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Kraft Foods and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Multinational Monitor has learned that the center's BSE risk analysis credited a scientist from Taylor Byproducts, a subsidiary of beef packing powerhouse Cargill, as one of four key advisers. The acknowledgements list Conagra, the American Cattlemen's Association, the National Renderers Association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American Feed Association, and the National Grain and Feed Association. Food safety, or consumer groups apparently were not consulted.

Despite the inadequate enforcement and lax testing, USDA continued to assure the public that its measures were sufficient. In May 2003, USDA issued a radio press statement that said the USDA has "made every effort to look for the disease. If it was here we have been doing surveillance at a level that we should find it."

After the mad cow was found last December, USDA was forced to defend the policy but also expand its regulatory oversight. USDA Secretary Ann Veneman viewed the BSE case as a regulatory success, telling CNN, "We have had a number of measures in place in this country for several years to mitigate the possibility of mad cow spreading in this country. We have found a single case."

The Department's new rules proposed to close some of the loopholes in the regulations, eliminate downer cows from the Human food supply and screen more cattle. But more than three months after the new feed regulations were promised, there had been no federal register notice of proposed changes, the first step in enacting new regulations.

The new screening plan, if it ever moves forward, would screen half the downer cows, which are believed to have a greater chance of having BSE than ambulatory cows, and 20,000 additional healthy, older cows (because of BSE's long incubation time, older cows are more likely to test positive for BSE). Screening higher risk cows makes sense, but there are now doubts about whether the mad cow was actually a downer. Three witnesses have come forward saying the cow was walking and not a downer cow. If true, increased screening of downer cattle would not have caught the cow found to be infected with BSE. Screening 20,000 ambulatory cattle would only examine 0.05 percent of the annual slaughter.

By April 2004, 58 countries had banned the imports of some or all U.S. beef and cattle products. Japan, which buys nearly one third of U.S. beef exports, has stated that it will not import U.S. beef until 100 percent of the cattle are tested for BSE.

In April, USDA prohibited a Kansas meatpacker from voluntarily testing 100 percent of its cattle in order to export to Japan. The meatpacker is losing $40,000 a day and has already laid off 50 employees.

USDA prohibited the testing because it "would have implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted." The Center for Science in the Public Interest responded, "USDA's action is a disincentive to companies that want to do more to meet their food safety obligations."

Regardless of the new regulatory regime, BSE may have already entered the U.S. food supply and started to intact people with vCJD. A March New York Times Magazine story reported an unusual cluster of unexplained CJD cases around Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Eight people known to eat at the same race-track in nearby towns died of CJD, a rate of 4 people every three years. But natural spontaneous CJD unrelated to mad cow occurs in only one in a million people. The towns near the racetrack have a population of less than 125,000; natural CVD cases should only occur once every eight years. The New Jersey of Department of Health, relying on assistance from the Centers for Disease Control determined the cluster was not mad cow in April, but critics remained unconvinced.

"The industry and agency line that consumers have nothing to worry about is not supported by the facts," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Energy and Environment Project. "At its core, the BSE issue is one of priorities--fast production versus wholesomeness and animal health."
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Title Annotation:IV. Consumer Rights
Author:Woodall, Patrick
Publication:Multinational Monitor
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:1229
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