- The summer barbecue season is upon us. What better time
to revisit the topic of mad cow disease? Before you plop that slab of Ol'
Bossie on the grill, before you slather up that rack of beef ribs with
Joe Bob's Country BBQ sauce, take a moment to think about what you will
- Several months ago, this column went into some detail
about the possibility that mad cow disease (or BSE) may have already infected
America's food supply. Knappster took considerable grief from my carnivorous
friends who now regard me as a pinko, semi-vegetarian cow sympathizer.
A few of them growled and complained about their God-given right to swallow
chewy flank steak, to guzzle gristle, ravage ribs, masticate bull testicles,
to kill and eat anything with four or more legs. They suspect that I raised
the mad cow issue as part of a surreptitious animal welfare campaign.
- Admittedly, there are animal welfare issues involved.
The things that are done to docile cows in the name of hamburger are mind
boggling and revolting. However, the more pressing issue for humans is
the health question. Is the American beef supply reasonably safe and free
of BSE? Since my last article on this topic, several disturbing things
- Anyone remember Dave Louthan? He's the guy who discovered
the first American mad cow case back in December. A few weeks later, Louthan
was fired from his job at a Washington meat plant where he had worked for
- The reason Dave was fired is because he dared to tell
reporters that--contrary to official pronouncements--the mad cow in question
had been ground up into hamburger and had already been eaten by consumers.
More chilling, he told people that the BSE-infected cow was not a so-called
downer cow, but, rather, had been up and walking around when it was slaughtered.
The reason this is so scary is that America's first line of defense against
BSE cattle is to weed out downer or disabled cows, to keep them from becoming
dinner. The USDA requires very little BSE testing, so it is up to the meat
packers to pick out the sick animals and keep them out of the food chain.
- Louthan, along with several independent food safety experts,
thinks the paperwork surrounding the Washington mad cow case was fudged.
There are strong suspicions that the USDA testing lab in Ames, Iowa, not
only doctored the test results from this case, but has done the same in
many previous cases. UPI has reported that many USDA inspectors don't even
bother to submit test samples to the lab anymore in the belief that the
tests would either not be conducted or would be buried. Louthan thinks
there is a simple explanation for this. He contends that USDA officials
"absolutely, positively don't want to find another case" of mad
cow in the United States.
- Think that's an exaggeration? Maybe you didn't hear about
another suspected mad cow in Texas. This particular cow staggered and collapsed
at a Texas slaughterhouse in early May. Under federal regulations, it should
have been tested for mad cow disease. It wasn't. Instead, the sick animal
was sent to a rendering plant where it was ground up into animal feed and
assorted byproducts. The USDA later explained that this was a harmless
and inadvertent mistake. Oopsie.
- But all of a sudden, a number of USDA employees began
telling stories about how they were specifically ordered to stop all testing
on the sick cow in question. (Testing is the only way to confirm the presence
of BSE.) USDA responded to this criticism by ordering that government meat
inspectors are henceforth forbidden from speaking to any outside party
about mad cow disease. This order came out in early May, although few beef
consumers ever heard about it.
- As if to drive home the point with even more clarity,
the USDA came down hard on a meat company called Crestone Farms. Crestone
had the temerity to build its own BSE testing facility. It announced that
it would henceforth test every cow that it sold to assure customers that
Crestone beef was entirely BSE-free. The company hoped to carve out a niche
in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the USDA controls all BSE testing kits
in this country. It refused to give Crestone the kits it needed to test
all its cows. The USDA explained this by saying that random testing of
a small percentage of cows is sufficient and that Crestone's policy might
undermine the government's position.
- Critics say this makes it abundantly clear that the USDA's
true loyalty is to the multibillion-dollar beef industry, rather than to
beef consumers. Why stop a private company from testing its own cattle
to make sure they are disease-free? The USDA contends that the random testing
of a mere 40,000 cattle per year (out of more than 30 million that are
slaughtered in the United States) is more than enough to ensure Americans
that our beef is free of mad cow. It is small wonder that more than 30
foreign countries banned the importation of American beef.
- It's also why Business Week magazine, hardly a wild-eyed,
anti-capitalist, pro-cow publication, contends that random testing simply
isn't enough. The magazine contends that "despite USDA reassurances,
America's beef supply--and its citizens--are at risk."
- I won't go into the new research about scientific links
between mad cow and Alzheimer's, or about the suspected links between clusters
of CJD deaths and tainted beef. Go ahead and pour some A-1 on that juicy
burger. The USDA says it's perfectly safe.
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