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BEEF INDUSTRY | Did Americans underreact to mad cow disease?
Roxana Hegeman of the Associated Press reports that animal-feed rules designed to prevent future cases of mad cow have not been strengthened.
After the nation’s first case of mad cow disease was discovered, government regulators and industry officials worked quickly to reassure consumers it was safe to eat a steak. A year later, you would never guess there was any concern at all – the nation’s appetite for beef has remained strong.
But consumer advocates say there’s a problem with that lack of reaction from the public – it might have diminished the effect of the mad cow case on improving food safety. Aside from several steps taken shortly after a single cow in Washington state was found infected with the disease, reforms that were promised remain unfulfilled.
Federal regulators, trying to reassure U.S. consumers, promised to strengthen the country’s food-safety rules. For the most part, it didn’t happen, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center of Science in the Public Interest.
“Consumers didn’t react very much, so they don’t feel the need to take action, and I think that is unfortunate,” Smith DeWaal said.
Certainly, significant changes were made to strengthen existing safeguards already in place.
Some consumer groups say the most important was the banning of so-called downer cattle, animals too sick to stand, from slaughter for human consumption. Regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture think new rules that forbid potentially infectious material, such as spinal cords, from being incorporated into food are the most significant reform.
The government’s testing program for mad cow, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was expanded to include more than 221,000 animals, 10 times the number tested in 2003, by the time it is done. The surveillance program went into effect June 1 and is to be completed in a year to 18 months. As of Monday, the agency had tested 152,984 animals.
But animal-feed rules designed to prevent future cases of mad cow have not been strengthened. And a national animal identification system designed to track individual cattle – in the works before the BSE discovery, but supposedly expedited after its discovery – has yet to be fully implemented.
Other proposed changes, food-safety advocates said, were made not to benefit U.S. consumers but those overseas, whose countries quickly closed their borders to American beef imports after the mad cow discovery.
For example, Smith DeWaal said, during recent trade talks with Japan, U.S. negotiators seemed willing to apply stricter regulations to cattle 20 months or older that would be marketed to Japanese consumers. The regulations would start at 30 months for cattle aimed at the domestic market.
“The pressure put on USDA by foreign governments is far more effective in effecting change than the pressure put on USDA by U.S. consumers,” Smith DeWaal said. “They are much more worried about losing markets.”
Agriculture Department officials discount that criticism. “It is our goal to make sure that we are providing a safe and wholesome product to consumers – whether it is in America or elsewhere globally,” said Beth Johnson, specialist assistant to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
Johnson said the continuing strong demand for beef is due to the confidence consumers have in the U.S. beef supply and the steps the agency has taken to protect the U.S. cattle herd. She credited safeguards, such as a ban on high-risk cattle parts in cattle feed since 1997, the agency put in place years before the first mad cow case.
Such safeguards have kept the United States from having widespread incidents of mad cow disease such as those in other nations, she said.
Johnson said it might be early 2006 before a national animal identification system that can trace an animal back to its source in 48 hours is fully in place. But the agency said it has made headway in putting the system together, and it can track the majority of cattle under existing state and industry systems.
Through it all, no deaths or illnesses have been attributed to the sole confirmed U.S. mad cow case; other diseases such as E. coli or listeria are far more common. Food-borne diseases account for 5,000 deaths, 75 million cases of illness and 325,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
“Mad cow disease has had a greater visibility than a number of other meat-related diseases,” said Greg Watchman, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. “In the end, it serves to underscore the systematic problems at USDA in dealing with these diseases as a whole.”