Mad Cow/Where's the BSE free beef?

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This article was first published as "Where's the (BSE-free) Beef?" in PR Watch, Volume 11, No. 1, 1st Quarter 2004. It is authored by Diane Farsetta and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

International and domestic consumers want it. Meat packers want it. Producers are willing to offer it, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture says no one can get it unless and until they decide otherwise.

The controversial product? U.S. beef from 100 percent screened cattle determined to be free of mad cow disease.

In February, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a slaughterhouse and meatpacker in Kansas, said it was going to build its own testing laboratory for mad cow disease, or BSE (for bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

Currently the only USDA-approved laboratory for BSE testing is in Ames, Iowa, although the USDA says it's adding more labs in the near future. The USDA warned Creekstone Farms that it could face criminal charges if it carried out any independent testing. And when a Missouri rancher called the Ames facility to ask whether he could pay to have his cattle screened there, he was denied in no uncertain terms.

The December 2003 discovery of a BSE positive cow in Washington state--the first such case in the United States--quite understandably has many people worried. Ingesting BSE-infected meat can lead to an always-fatal neurological wasting disease in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Following the December announcement, more than 50 countries closed their borders to U.S. beef. In one fell swoop, ten percent of the U.S. beef market--some $3 billion in international sales annually--collapsed, cattle prices plunged, and some industry sectors have had to lay off workers.

In early March, just prior to a long-delayed meeting between George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, Mexico became one of only two countries to ease their ban on U.S. beef. Mexico now allows the import of boneless beef from U.S. cattle younger than 30 months. This "is a big first step" to resuming beef exports, proclaimed an elated USDA undersecretary. But Japan, formerly the number one importer of U.S. beef, insists that it will not resume imports until the U.S. beef industry follows the Japanese example of testing all cattle for BSE at slaughter.

Although the news cycle following the discovery of BSE in America was filled with reassuring stories of continued domestic beef eating, there is evidence of U.S. concern as well. Consumers Union, the non-profit interest group that publishes Consumer Reports, conducted a study in mid-January that found near-universal awareness of mad cow disease among those interviewed (more than 99 percent). Nearly one-third of survey participants said they are concerned or very concerned about the safety of U.S. beef, and over 70 percent said they would pay more to ensure that cattle going into the human food supply are BSE-free.

Creekstone Farms wants to implement 100 percent testing so that it can resume sales to Japan. A recent survey of beef packers and processors found that nearly 60 percent support private testing as a way to re-open international markets. Nearly half of the meat packers surveyed said they would consider testing every animal they process, if the tests had USDA approval. The Missouri rancher mentioned above was responding to multiple requests for certified BSE-free meat. When told that the USDA forbade independent testing, one of his customers responded incredulously, "If people want to have their beef tested, they should be able to. Isn't this how the free market works?"

The answer is, well, sometimes. The Virus Serum Toxin Act of 1913 gives the USDA ultimate authority to decide how to manage certain types of potential health threats among livestock. So while farms can do their own testing for drug or bacterial contaminations, BSE testing is off limits. The USDA says that private testing holds too many risk for the industry. Allowing individual farms to test and then market their beef as "BSE-free" implies that eating untested meat is hazardous. The USDA also says it fears a further economic downturn for the industry if farms use BSE tests that give false positive results--even though false positives could be easily corrected with follow-up testing.

Many nongovernmental organizations, including the Center for Media & Democracy, point out that the USDA's testing regime seems to be designed to avoid finding genuine cases of BSE. Last year, just over 20,000 cattle out of the 35 million slaughtered were tested for mad cow disease. In mid-March, the USDA announced plans to test up to 268,000 cattle over the next 12 to 18 months--still just a drop in the big beef bucket. And the vast majority of cattle to be tested (some 201,000) are those who died mysteriously or are exhibiting signs of disease or neurological damage, animals that have already been removed from the human food supply.

The increasing tension between the U.S. government's stonewalling and consumer demand highlights the USDA's conflicting goals: promoting the U.S.meat industry and protecting the public health threats. When Britain was dealing with its mad cow crisis nearly a decade ago, it scrapped a similarly compromised government agency and established a more independent body to oversee food safety. Unless the FDA and USDA adopt major policy changes soon, it may be time for the United States to do the same.