Beef and credibility

December 30, 2003

IF THE DISCOVERY of a single case of mad cow disease in the United States is not a cause for panic or overreaction, it does nonetheless raise serious questions about safeguards against the illness, and it illuminates larger concerns stemming from the grotesque industrialization of the meat-packing business.

The good news for American cattle farmers is that the infected cow, which had been living on a dairy farm in Washington, apparently came from Canada; the bad news is that until last May the United States was importing about a million cattle a year from its northern neighbor. The United States does test some slaughtered cows for the disease, but far fewer (21,000 out of 35 million last year) than other countries do. Japan tests every slaughtered cow. A ban on the use in cattle feed of protein from rendered cattle has been in effect for six years, and would greatly reduce the risk of spreading the disease -- if it were enforced by the Food and Drug Administration as rigorously as it should be.

Maybe this one case truly is an isolated one, and will serve in the end as a useful alarm. Maybe testing will be expanded and regulatory oversight tightened up. Maybe confidence in American beef will be shored up, even strengthened.

But there are still underlying problems: Because of the mechanized nature of the slaughterhouse, the government has been forced to recall more than 10,000 pounds of beef from stores in eight states. The reason is that remnants from the one infected cow would have been mixed together with all the other beef from that particular lot. (That, by the way, is an effective means of spreading more common bacterial illnesses, as well.)

More troubling, ground beef products use scraps garnered with Advanced Meat Recovery Systems, which squeeze soft tissue off the neck bones and spinal column. By law, no traces of the brain or spinal cord are to be mixed with ground meat; in reality, tests have found contamination rates in batches prepared this way as high as 35 percent. This is how the disease is most likely to spread to humans.

Is that why the Department of Agriculture ordered a recall of all that beef even as it argues -- as it did again yesterday -- that there is absolutely no risk in eating it? Critics have accused the department of speaking with far too much certainty ever since the infected cow was discovered; in fact, a great deal is still not known about mad cow disease and its human variant.

And here's another troubling issue: The government says the sick cow was a "downer;" that is, it couldn't stand up. The dairy farmer who owned her disputes this. But the point is that the government sees nothing wrong with allowing downers into the food system. This should be enough to make any meat-eater uneasy.

The American cattle business is at a precipice right now: If the government can move quickly and credibly to back up its assertions that beef is safe to eat and that America is well protected against mad cow disease, this incident will pass quickly from memory. If not, expect real trouble ahead.

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