Alibi V.13 No.2 • Jan 8-14, 2004 

Payne's World

What's for Dinner?

Mad Cow Disease a real downer for the beef industry

Watching the reaction of various public officials to the first documented case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States brings to mind the performance of Mayor Vaughn, the political head of Amity in Steven Speilberg's classic Jaws. Despite all the obvious signs that there might just be trouble lurking off the waters of the coastal community, Mayor Vaughn insists that the locals continue to swim in the ocean because doing otherwise would be bad for the summer tourist season. Instead of acknowledging the problem early on, clearing the beaches and letting Brody, Quint and Hooper get to work, the shark continues to feast and hysteria eventually overtakes the town. Needless to say, the Amity Chamber of Commerce had something of a public relations challenge in the aftermath.

Vaughn's reaction is a classic case of burying your head in the sand in the vain hope the problem will simply go away. It also appears to be the de facto approach by the nation's beef industry to the issue of Mad Cow Disease—a policy that was apparently aided and abetted by the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the Food and Drug Administration. Only in this case, instead of burying their collective heads in sand, it appears they were inserted well up the part of the cow where the sun doesn't shine.

Admittedly, there may be a certain amount of hype surrounding this one case of Mad Cow in the U.S. It is one cow out of approximately 35 million that will head to the slaughterhouse this year. But there simply isn't any question that there are problems within the industry and this one case of Mad Cow that we know of could have—and should have—been prevented. Let's also not forget, meat from this cow made it into the supermarkets of about eight states and nobody wants to be the poor soul the fatal viral infection associated with Mad Cow Disease sitting around wondering if they got it.

For at least three years prior to the discovery of the Washington state Mad Cow, consumer groups, members of Congress and scientists have warned of the inadequacy and insufficiency of government efforts to prevent the spread into our country. Following the Mad Cow epidemic in Great Britain (which, in addition to crippling that nation's beef industry, was responsible for the slow, agonizing deaths of almost 200 people) in 1997 the U.S. enacted a ban against processing the remains of cows and other ruminants into feed that is, in turn, fed back to cows. This cannibalism is believed to be the prime avenue for transmission of the disease.

But in September 2000, the General Accounting Office found that 18 percent of the nation's feed plants were unaware the ban existed. Twenty-eight percent of the firms making the prohibited feed failed to properly label it. The FDA—charged with enforcement of the ban—did not contest the GAO's report and promised to do better. Sixteen months later, however, the GAO issued a second report concluding that the FDA still “has not acted promptly” to enforce the ban and that some of the feed mills using slaughterhouse scraps to make cattle feed had not been re-inspected for more than two years.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the inability of Congress to deal effectively with the issue of “downer” cows—animals that are too injured or sick to stand or walk on their own. The Agriculture Department estimates that 130,000 of these cows are slaughtered every year. Downer cows often have degenerative diseases like the kind that cause Mad Cow. The four-year-old Washington state dairy cow that came to national attention a couple of weeks ago was a downer cow.

In 2003—prior to the discovery of Mad Cow in the U.S.—the Senate passed legislation banning downer cattle from the food supply only to have the provision eliminated in a joint Senate-House version of the measure. To their credit, hamburger giants McDonald's and Wendy's say they have already eliminated downed-animal meat from their product lines. Why can't the U.S. House of Representatives get with the program?

Immediately after the announcement that Mad Cow had been discovered in the U.S., 90 percent of the export market for U.S. beef evaporated overnight. The chief economist for the National Cattleman's Beef Association said that U.S. producers stand to lose at least $6 billion from export losses and falling prices alone. While the jury still appears out when it comes to the American public, cattle prices are falling as well.

Billions of dollars lost and an entire industry put at risk, and for what? It's said that when ignorance is bliss, it is foolish to be wise but in refusing to exercise a little wisdom and spending a little more to make absolutely certain the product is safe, ultimately the real “downer” here is the beef industry. Unless it gets cleaned up—for an increasing number—it may not be what's for dinner.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.