Mad Cow Is the Symptom

The Progressive, February 2004 | Go to article overview

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. …

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