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Mad cow is the symptom.

Back in 1997, investigative journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber wrote a book called Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? Their answer was a resounding--and prescient--yes. They based their certitude on the fact that the meat industry held inordinate sway over the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was supposed to be ensuring the safety of the meat supply.

One of the first USDA task forces on Mad Cow disease in 1990 consisted, among others, of "key representatives from the agribusiness industry," Rampton and Stauber wrote. The National Milk Producers Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the American Sheep Industry Association, and the National Renderers Association were all on board. There was "not even token representation by a consumer organization," the authors wrote.

Scientists warned for years that the common cannibalistic practice of feeding cow parts to cows was tailor-made to cause Mad Cow in the United States. But even after Great Britain announced in March 1996 that Mad Cow could leap the species barrier and infect humans (killing about 140 people there, to date), U.S. renderers--the companies that chop up cow parts to render them into animal feed and other products-objected to new regulations.

"Will the rendering industry be regulated on existing risks, perceived risks, public perception, political expedience, or science?" asked Don Franco of the National Renderers Association, who was on the 1990 USDA task force. "We, as an industry, plead for a scientific assessment based on conditions in the U.S.," Rampton and Stauber quoted him as saying. "Let us not make hasty decisions that could negatively impact all the involved industries."

Hasty the United States was not.

Because of industry pressure, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not ban the feeding of cows to cows until 1997. On June 4 of that year, the FDA prohibited the practice of using cattle, sheep, or goat parts as feed for those animals.

But the ban was nowhere near satisfactory. "The rendering industry could, however, continue processing 'slaughtered-animal parts' into feed supplements for pigs, chickens, fish, pets, and other animals, and those animals could in turn be converted into protein supplements for feeding back to cows--as well as their own species," Rampton and Stauber wrote. "FDA's rule also exempted blood and blood products," they added, even though a doctor at the National Institutes of Health had found in an experiment with mice that blood products do carry the disease.

The FDA ban had one other huge hole: It failed to prevent meat from so-called downer cows--those that are too sick to walk--from entering the food supply. Even though the evidence was strong that these cows were potential carriers of this disease (and others), the FDA and the USDA did nothing to prevent meat from those cows--about 200,000 of them a year--from ending up on your dining room table. All the while, they assured the american public that they had done what was necessary to ensure that Mad Cow would not become a health problem in the United States.

When a cow with the disease turned up in Alberta last May, the likelihood of Mad Cow occurring in the United States became even stronger. "You'd think Canada was somewhere between Australia and New Zealand the way this is being covered by the American media," Stauber said at the time. The disease does not respect borders, he noted.

"If the disease was in Canada, it would also be found in the United States and Mexico, since all three NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] nations are one big free trade zone and all three countries feed their cattle slaughterhouse waste in the form of blood, fat, and rendered meat and bone meal," Stauber wrote recently on Alternet.org.

So when the first animal was positively identified with Mad Cow in the United States in December, it should have come as no surprise.

Ironically, just a month before, the USDA proposed relaxing its standards on the importation of cows. And Congress, for the second time in two years, failed to pass legislation that would have banned the use of downer cows in the food supply.

Once the results on the Mad Cow were in, the USDA went into damage control mode. After hemming and hawing for a week, Ann Veneman, head of the USDA, finally issued several new rules that the government should have imposed years ago. She banned the inclusion of downer cows from the food supply. She banned the brains, spinal cords, skulls, and eyes from all cows older than thirty months. And she restricted the use of machines that scrape every last ounce of meat and bone off the cows.

These rules, while welcome, are like partially closing the barn door after the Mad Cows got out.

"These are positive steps, but they simply don't go far enough," said Michael Hansen, senior research associate at Consumers Union. Critics recommend that brains from younger cattle should be banned. And the United States should test every animal for Mad Cow disease, something Japan does as a matter of course.

Consumers Union noted that even today "rendered cattle remains can be fed to swine and chickens, and that rendered swine and chicken remains can, in turn, be fed back to cattle."

Stauber has a simple solution. "The feed rules that the United States must adopt can be summarized this way: You might not be a vegetarian, but the animals you eat must be," he wrote.

But the meat industry, still hidebound, stuck to its guns. "One of our philosophies is minimal government involvement and letting the industry address these things," Terry Stokes, the head of the cattlemen's association, told The New York Times on January 1.

For its part, the American Meat Institute denied there were any health concerns. "This case poses no risk to consumers," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of that organization.

Like the meat industry, the Bush Administration downplayed the risk. There was the President himself boasting at a press conference after Christmas that he ate beef at his holiday meal. That was reminiscent of the British agriculture official who, in front of the cameras, ate a hamburger and had his young daughter eat a hamburger at the height of the Mad Cow epidemic them. (It was also reminiscent of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien eating a steak on TV after the Mad Cow was found in Alberta.)

But the USDA is well practiced at spinning the health of the current U.S. food supply. And there is a reason for that: High officials at the agency come from industry--and represent the needs of industry. Veneman's spokeswoman is Alisa Harrison, who used to be director of public relations for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, one of the main lobbyists against tighter Mad Cow regulations, as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, pointed out in The New York Times on January 2. Veneman's chief of staff is Dale Moore, who was "previously the chief lobbyist for the cattlemen's association," Schlosser notes.

There are others, such as Chuck Lambert, "formerly the chief economist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, now deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs," according to the nonprofit group Public Campaign.

Veneman herself served on the board of directors of Calgene, a company that manufactured genetically engineered tomatoes. She also was a member of the International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food, and Trade, "a group funded by Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland," notes the Center for Responsive Politics.

The beef industry knows it has a friend in Bush, and it greases the wheels of government.

"The number one recipient of campaign dollars from the meat processing and livestock industries so far in the 2004 election, as well as in the 2000 elections, is President George W. Bush, with a total of nearly $880,000," says Public Campaign in a January 6 statement. Three of Bush's biggest fundraisers, who brought in more than $100,000 to his coffers, own large ranches, the group notes.

"I love those cattlemen!" That's what Bush told the head of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, The New Fork Times reported.

What happened at Bush's USDA has also ccurred at many other agencies in his bureaucracy: The foxes are guarding one chicken coop after another, and they pay the President for the privilege.

At the Department of the Interior, advocates of industry are calling the shots. "The Department of the Interior is now packed with people previously engaged in the employ of industry," David Helvarg reported in our June 2003 issue. "The department's Deputy Secretary Steve Griles is a former mining and oil lobbyist. ... Norton's special assistant on Alaska is a former oil lobbyist, her assistant secretary for water and science is a former mining lawyer who has called for the abolition of the Endangered Species Act, and her solicitor is from the Cattlemen's Beef Association, where he lobbied for cheap grazing fees on Interior lands."

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton herself represented mining interests before taking over the agency.

The mining companies gave a total of $2,851,000 to the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 2000-2002 election cycles, according to Public Campaign.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher was a lobbyist for Monsanto. The EPA's assistant administrator for the office of air and radiation is Jeffrey Holmstead. He "formerly represented the Alliance for Constructive Air Policy, a sixteen-member industry coalition, four members of which are defendants in New Source Review enforcement actions. One of these, Ohio utilities giant American Electric Power, is the biggest polluter in the industry," Public Campaign reports. "The company has given $17,950 to the Bush campaign and the RNC since 1999." As an attorney, Holmstead also represented the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, BASE and Uniroyal, the group notes.

Marianne Lamont Horinko, assistant administrator for the EPA's office of solid waste, also used to represent the Chemical Manufacturers Association, as well as the Koch Petroleum Group and ALCOA, adds Public Campaign.

The EPA and the USDA are just two examples. There are plenty of others. Bush, by recess appointment, put two pro-business members onto the National Labor Relations Board: Michael Bartlett and William Cowen. "Bartlett was most recently director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," wrote reporter Tula Connell for In These Times. "Cowen is founder and principal attorney for the Institutional Labor Advisors, which provides 'union avoidance' advice for its primarily coal-mining clients."

Over at the Treasury Department, "the man President Bush has picked to help enforce the nation's tax laws just won a major decision that could undermine a government crackdown on some corporate tax shelters," The Wall Street Journal wrote on July 11, 2001, referring to B. John Williams.

The conflicts of interest are inescapable. "Overall, twenty-two of the top 100 Bush officials had significant holdings in thirty-three companies that lobbied their departments, agencies, or offices," the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2002.

The capturing of federal agencies by the very industries they are supposed to regulate is not a new phenomenon. Historian Gabriel Kolko has traced it back to the early twentieth century. But under George Bush, it has reached its apotheosis. The saga of Mad Cow is a cautionary tale about what happens to our public health when industry takes over the regulatory apparatus. But it's more than that. It's a snapshot of how our democracy itself has bowed to corporate interests. And it's an indictment of the reigning philosophy of George W. Bush.

During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush pledged to deregulate industry, and he has done almost everything in his power to do so over the last three years. Whether it's jettisoning the global warming treaty or loosening regulations on the emissions of lead and dioxins or letting the timber companies buzz saw through our national forests, Bush has put the interests of his corporate cronies above those of the public.

Just three weeks before the first confirmed Mad Cow case in the United States and more than two years after the corporate scandals erupted, Bush was still blaming the government for getting in the way of business. Speaking at an event at a Home Depot in Baltimore, Bush said that "excessive regulations" hurt all businesses, and he vowed to ease up.

But as the case of Mad Cow shows, regulation is not a problem; the lack of regulation is. A policy beholden to corporate interests has resulted in a public health risk.

How many Mad Cows is it going to take to change that philosophy?
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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