Mad Cow, Mad Policy

The Nation, January 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Mad Cow, Mad Policy


When Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and the agribusiness insiders-turned-"regulators" who run George W. Bush's Agriculture Department finally acknowledged that a case of mad cow disease had been found on a Washington State factory farm, the first order of business was to protect the agribusiness interests that have resisted basic food-safety measures for years. Veneman repeated the tired "nothing to fear" spin that British government aides peddled more than a decade ago, when they were downplaying the significance of the discovery there of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The British BSE outbreak led to devastation for that country's farmers, the slaughter of millions of cows and the death of more than 130 people from the human form of the disease. By studying Britain's experience, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration might well have been able to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the United States. Instead, they created what food-safety activist John Stauber describes as "a testing system that was designed not to find the disease."

Despite Veneman's public reassurances, she could not have known that the food supply was safe. That's because the United States has failed to follow World Health Organization recommendations that sick cattle be tested for BSE before slaughter. Of 35 million head slaughtered for human consumption in the last fiscal year in the United States, only about 20,000 were tested--as compared with virtually all cattle in Japan and Europe. No wonder Britain's Independent newspaper answered Veneman's announcement with an editorial that read, "The temptation will be strong to greet the first case of BSE in the United States with self-satisfied gloating and a rousing chorus of 'We told you so.' There have been suspicions for years that the U.S. was not, and could not be, free from the cattle disease and that it was only lax enforcement and the willingness of some ranchers to slaughter and bury the occasional 'mad cow' on the quiet, that allowed the Americans to claim for so long that they were BSE-free. …

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