Eating meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, can cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal human brain-wasting disorder. More than 160 deaths in Britain were attributed to eating BSE-infected beef, and the disease spread to Europe and Asia before the slaughter of cattle and better testing helped curb the outbreak.
The Bush administration's approach to safeguarding the nation's supply of beef has been to deny that there's a problem and to resist comprehensive BSE testing, Gregory L. Berlowitz, an editor at the University of Illinois Law Review, wrote. The net result is that the USDA has placed the welfare and promotional concerns of the beef industry ahead of public welfare.
The first case of BSE in the U.S. was reported in December 2003 at a farm in Washington state. Because the cow was of Canadian origin, USDA officials insisted that the American beef supply was safe. However, after Japan and 52 other countries banned U.S. beef, the USDA started a program to test half of the nation's 450,000 "downer" cows, or cows that could not walk.
The surveillance program found no cases of mad cow disease until June 24, 2005. "This cow was of American origin," Berlowitz wrote, "but even more disturbing, the cow had been tested for BSE in November 2004, and had been retested only on the recommendation of the Office of Inspector General," which is an independent watchdog group within the USDA.
The Bush administration, in the meantime, had restored about one-third of U.S. beef exports through intense lobbying, but Japan, the biggest export market, continued to resist. The administration argued that there was no risk to humans because the second cow had not been slaughtered and the BSE infection had not gotten into the food supply.
Last December, Japan partially lifted its ban, allowing meat only from the carcasses of young cows that have had their spinal cords, vertebrae, brains and bone marrow removed.
But the ban was re-imposed on January 20 after a U.S. shipment was found to contain meat with banned vertebral columns still attached.
It is widely believed that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is under pressure to lift the Japanese ban before his visit to the U.S. next month.
These incidents underscore the need for the USDA to end its head-in-the-sand approach and begin "a mix of mandatory and voluntary testing to ensure the largest possible number of cattle are tested, while working to open foreign markets for American beef on the basis of the reliability of that testing," Berlowitz said.
The law editor faulted the USDA's decision to test only downer cows, which constitute less than 2 percent of the animals slaughtered each year in the U.S. By contrast, Japan and England test all slaughtered meat for BSE, and most European nations test cattle 24 months and older before they are slaughtered.
Compounding USDA's lax practices has been its refusal to allow beef processors to independently test cattle for mad cow disease. In 2004, Creekstone Farms, a Kansas processor of black Angus beef with a large Japanese clientele, asked for permission to test its 300,000 cattle for BSE using a $500,000 testing site it had built to USDA specifications.
But the agency ruled that the BSE test was licensed only for "surveillance" of animal health, and rejected Creekstone's request because it implied "a consumer safety aspect" that was "not scientifically warranted."
The agency invoked the 1913 Virus-Serum-Toxin Act, intended to assure the safe supply of animal vaccines, as its authority for barring private testing.
Berlowitz called the action a ruse to protect the agency and the beef industry from a public outcry that would take place if more cases of mad cow disease were found. "In its 93 years of existence, the Virus-Serum-Toxin Act has never been used or interpreted to regulate testing of any kind. Manipulating the act to include the BSE test perverts the statute's purpose."
Congress should pass legislation forcing the USDA to license BSE tests to ranchers and slaughterhouses. "The USDA should create standards for testing conditions and requirements, and promulgate an application process with objective criteria for private producers. A standard testing regime would enable private producers such as Creekstone to market their beef as 'tested for BSE.'"
Berlowitz cited news reports that the cost of such testing would add only 6 to 10 cents to a pound of beef.
His article further warns of poor oversight of cattle feed. In particular, the slaughterhouse practice of "rendering," or recycling dead cows and sheep into protein for cattle feed, is believed to be widespread.
Congress banned the practice in 1997 following evidence that feeding herbivorous cows the meat from dead animals can lead to the formation of abnormal proteins, or prions.
The prions attack a cow's brain tissue, causing holes to form. As the brain loses function, the cow becomes disoriented and clumsy. Eventually the animal loses all muscle control and is unable to walk or eat. No treatment is available.
Enforcement of cattle-feed restrictions was placed in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rather than the USDA, which has caused various bureaucratic snarls, including a lack of communication between the two agencies.
"The FDA is far behind on inspecting feed businesses subject to the feed ban, has no uniform plan to identify feed businesses, has no routine procedure for testing of cattle feed, does not require a notice about the ban to be placed on feed, and has repeatedly failed to notify the USDA when it discovered that cattle may have been fed banned feed."
Berlowitz said the need to improve FDA enforcement practices "cannot be overstated" as a measure to reduce the possibility that BSE may spread to the American dinner table.
Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease takes a similar form in humans as BSE does in cattle. Muscle control is lost, limbs become uncontrollable, and voices become erratic and strangely pitched. A 14-year-old English girl, for example, cried for two weeks straight and then began screaming before she died.
His article is titled, "Food Safety vs. Promotion of Industry: Can the USDA Protect Americans From Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?"