Federal foot-dragging over mad cow threat

By Eric Ruder | June 24, 2005 | Page 2

A SECOND cow in the U.S. has tested positive for mad cow disease--but
the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is dragging its feet in
doing anything about it. The USDA insists that further testing is
necessary to determine whether the second animal is infected.

Since the first cow with mad cow disease--known to scientists as
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--was found on U.S. soil in
December 2003, the USDA and the cattle industry have launched a
full-scale campaign to convince both foreign and domestic consumers
that the U.S. beef supply is fully tested and safe.

After all, they argued, the infected cow had been imported from
Canada. Officials also announced that they intended to close feed ban
loopholes that left U.S. cattle vulnerable to outbreaks of BSE--which
spreads when cows eat brain and nerve tissue of already-infected
cattle. But once the media coverage of the outbreak died down, they
didn't keep their promise.

Before a BSE outbreak in Britain in 1997, cattle remains that were
byproducts of the slaughtering process could be used as protein in
cattle feed. Britain and other countries banned such ingredients in
feed--but not the U.S.

For example, it's still legal to put ground-up cattle remnants in
chicken feed--and to sweep up the chicken feed that spills from cages
and use it (and the chicken waste it's mixed with) in cattle feed.
This completes a feedback loop that allows cattle to eat the remains
of other cattle.

The USDA is supposed to protect consumers by insuring that the food
supply is safe. In reality, this "independent government agency" is
dominated by officials from the industry it is supposed to regulate.

"The USDA is very closely tied to large industry groups," Diane
Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy,
told Socialist Worker. "The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and
other groups have former staff and lobbyists in key USDA positions.
The USDA is structurally biased in favor of industry, and when the
agency is presented with a threat to both animal and human health,
these ties affect everything about its response--from how they
collect information to how they make policy."

The discovery of another animal with BSE comes as a blow to industry
efforts to restore beef exports to Japan and South Korea--which
banned U.S. beef after the first discovery of mad cow disease in
2003. Still, if there's one industry in a position to convince
consumers that its products are safe, it's the beef industry.

"The USDA and meat industry have been really adept at minimizing
coverage of issues related to mad cow disease," says Farsetta. "The
Public Relations Society of America gives out industry awards for
best public relations campaigns, and the National Cattlemen's Beef
Association has won several awards for its efforts to spin coverage
of mad cow disease."