January 9, 2004
Mad Cow Reveals USDA Madness
by Donald G. Mashburn

The Washington state “mad cow” case shows that more than cows can act strangely. How about a bloated bureaucracy like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and a loose system that allowed sick cows to be slaughtered for human food in the first place?

And how about those willing – for a few extra bucks – to sell and process cattle too sick to walk?

The Washington cow had bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – or “mad cow disease. Her agonizing end exposed a number of problems: People who added animal parts to cow feed, the cow’s owners who fed it, and the operators and processors willing to put meat from sick cows into the food chain.

The USDA can be blamed for previously allowing, for human food, the processing of sick animals that can’t stand – “downer cows.” At a minimum, allowing any part of such cows to find its way into human or livestock food is irresponsible. At worst, it’s bureaucratic madness and gross negligence.

BSE, like other diseases classified as “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies,” has a long incubation period, a short period of symptoms, and is universally fatal. A human form, Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), literally eats holes in the brain and is always fatal. So you might assume the USDA would act to require BSE tests on every animal slaughtered.

And you would be wrong. Last year, out of a U.S. cattle population of some 100 million head, fewer than 20,000 were tested for BSE.

An FDA Commissioner, Mark McClellan, claims the government has used “aggressive surveillance” to monitor BSE. The testing of ONE animal out of 50,000 isn’t what most people would call “aggressive.”

Great Britain’s devastating BSE epidemic of the 1990s caused wholesale slaughter and burning of farm animals. That nation’s beef industry hasn’t fully recovered. The epidemic led to the conclusion that animal protein in feed fed to cows accounted for the large number of infected farms.

In 1997, the U.S. government banned the use of animal protein in cattle feeds. But that didn’t keep out the infected “mad cow” from Canada in 1999. Then in May 2003, officials in Alberta, Canada, announced that tests confirmed BSE in a cow slaughtered earlier. Thus Canada joined the list of BSE countries.

The USDA has had many reasons to implement stronger rules, but hasn’t. To be fair, the USDA did act quickly recently in banning sales of “downer cows” for food. And on January 6, the government ordered the slaughter of an entire herd of 449 bull calves in Washington, because the offspring of the BSE cow could not be traced.

Regulatory noncompliance adds to the problem. A government report in 2000 stated that 28% of companies failed to properly label feed containing cow meat or bone meal. Almost as many companies lacked effective systems to prevent cross-contamination.

What does it take to stir the cattle industry and the USDA to stronger action? Are some 150 cases of human CJD, some 80 of them in Great Britain, enough? Was devastation of the British beef industry enough? Apparently not, for the “mad cow” from Canada still arrived here two years after the ’97 feed ban.

The FDA and USDA should require testing of all cattle going into the human food chain. It’s done in several other nations, which have neither our financial nor technical resources. The USDA should also enforce its ban on livestock feeds that contain any animal meat or bone meal.

And Congress should enact laws with severe penalties for the willful violation of stricter feed, slaughter and processing laws.

Cattle interests and the USDA are busy assuring the public that American beef is safe. It is, probably, but based on past performance, such assurances don’t make it so.

The major effort should be to make certain that diseased cattle – imported or native born – can’t get into our food supply.