- Note - The USDA claims to have tested 20,500 cattle last
year out of 35 million slaughtered. Now see what the USDA did to protect
Americans over the last TEN years...
- "From 1990, when (mad cow) tests were introduced,
until last year, only 57,000 of the more than 400 million head of cattle
sent for slaughter were tested." (that's 0.014%)
- By Suzanne Goldenberg talks to insiders who warn of failings
in a lax inspection regime
- The Guardian - UK 1-12-4
- When the first case of mad cow disease was diagnosed
in America a caustic joke began the rounds of the vets and food inspectors
who monitor safety standards at the meat packing plants.
- It was no surprise, it went, that a sick animal had been
brought to the slaughter, but it was absolutely shocking that the discovery
had ever become public.
- "That's the point where something went wrong with
the system - that it became public," a manager with nearly 30 years'
service in the agriculture department's food safety and inspection service
told the Guardian.
- "Among ourselves, we think our inspection system
is the lowest in the world."
- The senior safety source and others with an inside view
of the US meat industry questioned by the Guardian describe a culture of
indifference towards the threat of BSE.
- In the slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, vets
and food safety inspectors say:
- * policies favour the beef industry at the expense of
- * testing for BSE is rare and haphazard, and carried
out by people with minimal training in the disorder;
- * discussion of the disease by regulators was discouraged;
- * government agencies fail to enforce their own safety
- Until December 23, when the government officially acknowledged
the outbreak of BSE in a herd in Washington state, the regulatory agencies
repeatedly overlooked warnings by their own safety inspectors, and the
experience of Europe.
- By the time the outbreak was identified meat from the
infected cow had been shipped to seven US states and the Pacific territory
- The authorities have yet to trace more than 70 other
cows in the herd, which entered the US from Alberta, Canada, and which
presumably were given the livestock feed which is the main vehicle of transmission
- The allegations of bureaucratic short-sightedness, more
than 10 years after BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) devastated British
beef farming, is all the more astounding because America had advance warning.
In May last year Canada announced its own outbreak of the disease. But
the vets and inspectors responsible for assuring the safety of America's
food supply detected no policy shifts. Rather, they watched their influence
dwindle under policies which favoured the self-regulation of the $40bn
- Nor has there been a radical overhaul of safety measures,
despite Washington's repeated assurances to domestic consumers and to the
43 countries that have banned its meat products that US beef is safe to
- The agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, banned the killing
of "downer" cows (those too weak or sick to amble into the slaughterhouses)
for human consumption, and the use of brain, spinal cord and other tissues
which are thought to be more likely to carry BSE.
- She also pledged that the US would double its testing
of suspect animals for BSE.
- But the Guardian's source said he had seen no genuine
commitment to a more rigorous safety regime. "If you are really serious,
you are geared to find a particular disease," he said. "You focus,
you train, you give all the support that is needed. You have tests. And
you are very much more open."
- He described a regime in which vets became increasingly
demoralised at the loss of their regulatory powers.
- The agriculture authorities discouraged inspectors from
expanding testing procedures at slaughterhouses. Nor were there any clear
procedures, a lapse which allowed an inspector to pass the meat of a suspect
cow last month without waiting for the test results. That was the cow that
- "It was taboo a long time in the food safety inspection
service to even talk about BSE," he said.
- Others engaged in the American food supply chain share
his sense of disillusion. Tomorrow the Government Accountability Project,
the leading whistleblower organisation in the US, will produce statements
by a number of agriculture department inspectors saying that the BSE testing
regime is haphazard, and not entirely under the control of government agents.
- Such revelations are unlikely to be received kindly by
the department, which has worked hard to reassure consumers and protect
the industry. But they are in line with the fears of activists who have
been arguing for years that US food safety is hostage to the powerful lobby
of cattle ranchers and meat packers.
- The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, a
Washington advocacy group, says 11 of Ms Veneman's senior advisers are
drawn from the beef and dairy industries. Other critics point out that
the industry has given $22m to political parties, mainly the Republicans,
- The committee argues that the advisers' closeness to
the industry has blocked the introduction of controls which could have
reduced the risk of BSE.
- "They have focused more on protecting industry profits
than they have on protecting public health in their response to BSE,"
said the committee's nutrition director, Amy Lanou.
- "You can see evidence they are trying to balance
these two factors, but I think they have gone way out of balance in trying
to protect animal agriculture and industry and economic interests rather
than public health concerns."
- At the slaughterhouses the main barrier has been the
adoption of systems for the meat packing industry to regulate itself. But
the lack of control extends back up the supply chain to the meal that is
fed to American livestock.
- In 1997, at the height of the BSE epidemic in Europe,
the US banned the use of feed made from cattle carcasses for cows. It is
still allowed for chickens and pigs, a gap which troubles consumer groups.
- But even that measure has been regularly flouted, according
to a report by the general accounting office in 2002, which said that continuing
freedom from BSE could not be "sufficiently ensured by current federal
prevention efforts". Documents seen by the Guardian show the feed
ban continued to be breached last year.
- On Friday the chief veterinary officer, Ron DeHaven,
announced a big increase in testing of downers and other cattle believed
to pose a greater risk of BSE, to counter the criticism that only a fraction
of slaughtered animals are tested for BSE. From 1990, when tests were introduced,
until last year, only 57,000 of the more than 400m head of cattle sent
for slaughter were tested, according to animal and plant health inspection
- In Europe one in four is tested, and Japan tests every
beast. The US average of one in 7,000 would be worse but for the big increase
in testing in the past two years. About 19,990 animals were tested in 2002,
and 20,543 were tested last year.Most of them were downers or showing signs
of illness. A total of 200,000 downer cows were killed for human consumption
in America last year.
- An inspector who has worked in the north-eastern US for
10 years said he knew of an abattoir slaughtering mainly older cattle,
which are believed to be at higher risk of BSE, which had been visited
only twice by inspectors since May last year, when the Canadian outbreak
- In that time about 1,000 downers were slaughtered. Another
abattoir which specialised in culling old dairy cattle was inspected only
once. "It was not like there was a schedule," he said. "They
went when they had the time available."
- It is unclear how the agriculture department intends
to double the number of animals tested this year without taking on new
personnel to expand the understaffed and demoralised regulatory service,
the inspector said.
- Moreover, the vets do not seem to have been trained to
identify diseases of the central nervous system, beyond being shown a video
of a tottering cow that was in circulation a number of years ago.
- The Guardian's source said: "70-80% of the animals
- the majority of those with diseases of the central nervous system - may
go through, because untrained people are doing the ante-mortem inspections,
and because they don't have the support. They don't have enough training,
and they don't have the facilities."
- It is also feared that the ban on using the meat of downers
may prompt farmers to sell them to unscrupulous dealers. "Now we are
wide open to illegal operators," the source said. "We have worked
for many years and tried to combat illegal operators, so we know what they
are going to do."
- On Friday fast food chains such as McDonald's and Burger
King said they had seen no fall in sales since the ageing holstein was
diagnosed with BSE. The complacency infuriates the agriculture department
manager, who says he has not touched a hamburger since the mid-1980s.
- "When I see small kids eating a hamburger it infuriates
me, it really makes me angry to realise what is going on," he said.
"Someone needs to protect them."
- Where meat means business
- * The US beef industry is worth $40bn a year - with exports
accounting for $4.3bn - and employs 200,000 people
- * 97m beef cattle are raised in the US every year and
America produces a quarter of the world's beef supply
- * Beef forms a part of nearly 78m meals eaten in the
US every day - 8.2bn hamburgers are eaten every year
- * Sales of beef have soared as more people adopt the
meat-rich Atkins diet
- * The agriculture department spent $6.6m on BSE and scrapie
research last year. The cattle industry spent $50m on promotion
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