Eating meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform
encephalopathy, or 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.
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, wrote.
The net result is that the USDA has placed the welfare and
promotional concerns of the beef industry ahead of public
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 reimposed on Jan. 20 after a U.S. shipment
was found to contain meat with banned vertebral columns still
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 month.
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,"
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 with a
large Japanese clientele for its black Angus beef, asked for
permission to test its 300,000 cattle for BSE, using a $500,000
testing site it had built to USDA specifications.
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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
The agency invoked the 1913
Virus-Serum-Toxin Act, intended to assure the safe supply of animal
vaccines, as its authority for barring private testing.
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," he said. "Manipulating the act to
include the BSE test perverts the statute's purpose."
He said that 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," he said. "A standard testing regime would enable
private producers such as Creekstone to market their beef as ‘tested
Berlowitz cited news reports that the cost of such testing would
add only 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 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.
He 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 she died.
The article by Berlowitz is titled "Food Safety vs. Promotion of
Industry: Can the USDA Protect Americans From Bovine Spongiform
[News release from the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]