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Published: Saturday, 1/3/2004

A beef about mad cow

Despite repeated U.S. Department of Agriculture assurances that consumers have no reason to panic over the discovery that a so-called “downer” cow in the state of Washington has been diagnosed as having mad-cow disease, political operatives in the White House seem to have taken notice of the problem.

It can be no coincidence that, with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and her subordinates shifted quickly to damage control. News media are featuring interviews with worried-looking USDA veterinarians, not usually in the limelight.

The USDA is still seeking to prove that the sick cow came from Canada, which has already had an economically disastrous scrape with the disease scientifically known as bovine spongiform encepalopathy, or BSE. An industry with such a high degree of cross-border trade is a problem for all of North America.

Earlier this week the USDA banned the sale of beef from downer cows, those unable to get up or walk for whatever reason. In the past, that policy has been strongly resisted by the cattle industry, which now must surely regret that short-sighted decision as its losses mount.

More than two dozen countries have banned beef imports from the United States, which normally exports 10 percent of its beef. Japan alone bought more than $1 billion worth of U.S. meat products last year.

So far only one cow has been diagnosed as having BSE, but the government has been forced to issue meat recalls in eight western states and Guam, consumers are getting worried, and USDA investigators still don t know how the Washington state dairy cow got infected.

Other countries expanded testing of animals in the wake of the outbreak of BSE in Great Britain that claimed 143 human lives from Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in the 1980s and 1990s. It all but destroyed the industry in that country. The Canadian cow case cost that country $1.7 billion in lost income, and should have raised red flags in Washington.

Setting more stringent rules doesn t necessarily solve the problem. Testing for BSE is done on only 20,000 to 30,000 of the 35 million head of cattle slaughtered annually in this country, whereas Japan tests each of the 1.2 million beef animals it slaughters each year. Feeding of ruminant animal parts to cattle was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, but some experts say the law is not properly enforced.

In any case such feed is given to other domesticated animals. Bovine blood also is fed to calves as a milk replacer. Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a Nobel-prize-winning neurologist and authority on such diseases, commented that using cow blood in this way is “a really stupid idea.”

Government agencies charged with the responsibility of protecting our meat cannot simply blame the Canadians or shrug off the problem, while blandly assuring consumers that all is well. Testing should be widespread, feeding practices should be stringently regulated, and a foolproof system for tagging all cattle on the hoof or meat from slaughtered animals must be established so that any contamination can be traced.

The proper emotion for consumers all over the country should be anger that the White House, the GOP-controlled Congress, and bureaucrats at the USDA have so recklessly ignored an issue so vital as the safety of the meat we consume.



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