Fed's Deceit, Culture Of
Indifference Leaves
US Open To BSE


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 consumer safety;
* 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 standards.
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 of Guam.
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 for BSE.
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 beef industry.
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 eat.
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 had BSE.
"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, since 1990.
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 service figures.
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 was discovered.
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
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004,12271,1120774,00.html




This Site Served by TheHostPros