USDA Dithering Prompts
Mad Cow Cover-Up Fears

By George Knapp
Las Vegas Mercury
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 be eating.
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 have happened.
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 four years.
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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