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When will it be safe for us to eat beef?
By Nour Birouti

Mad Cow Disease appeared in the 1980s and has since been a major controversy in policy making and local and international government activity. The tug-of-war that has ensued between the meat industry and their critics for governmental support has left consumers quite dazed and confused, sparking widespread panic and general unease. The question, after all these years, still remains: how safe is it for us to eat beef?

The first case of Mad Cow Disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), appeared in the 1970s in the United Kingdom, but the disease was not formally identified until 1986. It is thought that BSE appeared as a result of feeding cattle with ruminant protein, a form of cannibalism that had been accepted as usual practice in intensive farming. BSE has been diagnosed in at least 183,800 cattle since then in the UK alone. Since the discovery of BSE, millions of cattle have been slaughtered in the U.K. and Europe.

When consumed, BSE infected meat can induce a human variant of the disease to appear in the consumer. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), as with BSE, affects the neural system and caused degeneration in the brain and neural tissue. Although BSE was discovered in the 1980s, it took a long time before any potential human danger was taken into account because of the long incubation period associated with it. All regulatory processes were therefore slowed as a result. As of March 1, 2004, there have been 146 diagnoses in the UK, 6 in France, 1 in the Republic of Ireland, 1 in Italy, 1 in the United States, 1 in Canada and 1 in Hong Kong.There is a chance that tissue and blood recipients who have received tissue and blood from infected donors may also develop vCJD, although, so far, there have not been any documented cases.

The discovery of an infected cow in the Washington State area in the U.S. in December 2003 set ablaze the discourse over regulations required to control the spread of the disease and to ensure consumer safety. A number of countries have since banned the import of U.S. beef and the beef industry suffered another large blow.

The consequences of BSE have been large and far-reaching. It has affected the livelihoods of tens of thousands who are directly employed by the meat industry and millions of consumers who cannot be sure of the safety of their beef. Uncertainty and lack of solid, reliable information has also led to widespread panic, and not all of that is unfounded. Yet, when we examine the facts associated with the disease and the ways we can combat it, we find extraneous obstacles in a road that should otherwise be quite straightforward.

When news of growing infection of cattle in the U.K. circulated, the U.S. Agricultural Department commissioned a study to investigate the likelihood of tainted meat entering the country and the effects such a situation would incur. The study found that it would be impossible to calculate the exact risk of BSE infected meat entering the country because many nations do not track their meat, so that even if meat from the U.K. and other 'high-risk' areas is banned, no one can be sure the U.S. is safe from BSE. The scientists conducting the study preferred to assume that BSE will enter the U.S. and to study what measures can be taken to minimize its impact.

However, just two years before the discovery of the infected cow in Washington State, Agriculture Secretary, Ann Veneman, said: "I am pleased to report that using complex mathematical models, the study found that the risk of BSE entering this country is extremely low." Indeed, she mischaracterized the study to falsely reassure the public. Not only is this harmful in itself, but U.S. policy at the moment is still guided by her statement.

Trade regulations the U.S. has with Mexico and Canada have largely thwarted any attempt at regulating importation of diseased beef. It was later found that the diseased cow found in Washington State was one that was raised in Canada on tainted feed and its entry into the U.S. was completely legal.

The consequences are dire for both consumers and the meat industry. While these policies put the health of the American public at risk, they also serve to worsen the already harsh environment facing meat producers. Illinois senator, Dick Durbin is quoted as saying, "If we don't deal with food safety forthrightly, honestly and comprehensively, it not only endangers American consumers, but it's going to be destructive with our global position in terms of trade." Already, around 57 nations have banned imports of U.S. beef since the discovery of the diseased cow in December 2003.

The main problems with U.S. policies on meat regulation are the lack of regular tests performed on cattle and loopholes in the U.S. regulatory system that renders the public still vulnerable to consuming contaminated beef.

Out of around 36 million cattle that are slaughtered annually in the U.S, only 20,000 were tested for BSE in 2003. Only 100 of the 700 U.S. abattoirs have had any cows tested in the last two years. By contrast, European countries test up to 25% of their cattle, while Japan tests 100%.

In light of all the criticisms, the Bush administration has only promised to test 40,000 cattle this year. USDA’s Chief Veterinarian, Ron DeHaven defended this decision, saying "Our testing has been based on what we know about the science of the disease. We get the most bang for our surveillance buck by testing high risk populations."

"There are more cases, no doubt about it," John Stauber, a critic of the current safety standards and author of Mad Cow, USA, said.

There are several proposals supported by the Democratic party that can help ensure maximum protection from the spread of BSE:

  1. Increase inspection and screening of cows, especially 'downers', animals that cannot even stand unaided. It is imperative that the government is not lax on enforcing the ban on feed made from ground bone meal.
  2. Install a 'test and hold' policy that would require any animal being tested to have its meat on hold and not distributed until the results are determined. If such a policy had been in place at the time of the discovery of the infected cow in December 2003, the massive recall would not have been necessary and the risk of infecting consumers avoided. In fact, the results came in only after the meat had already been distributed to eight states.
  3. Install a national tracking system for all cattle. Investigators were only able to track 29 of the 81 in the original herd the infected cow was in. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has introduced a bill that would require processed meat to carry such a tracking code, and called the discovery of the infected cow "a wake-up call".

The Bush administration has put its interest in the private sector ahead of the safety of the public. The result has been astronomical, causing damage to the meat industry that will probably take years to fully recover. Very simple, but strict, rules can help the situation, and all it takes for the eradication of the disease is for the government to introduce sound policies designed to ensure safety for the American people, which in the end, the government is supposed to serve.

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