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Federal testing for mad
cow disease a failure, Law Review editor says
Business & Law Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
The U.S. Agriculture Department’s mad cow disease-testing program
is wholly inadequate and the agency’s refusal to let processors
do their own testing further undercuts the safety of American beef,
a University of Illinois scholar writes.
Eating meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy,
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,
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
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
The agency invoked the 1913 Virus-Serum-Toxin Act, intended to assure
the safe supply of animal vaccines, as its authority for barring private
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
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
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
His article is titled, “Food Safety vs. Promotion of Industry:
Can the USDA Protect Americans From Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?”