Maddeningly Difficult


The FDA administered a series of regulations to prevent an outbreak of Mad Cow Disease yesterday, when they announced they would outlaw the use of animal blood in livestock feed and some cattle parts in dietary supplements. As ever, the debate continues over how serious the threat of the disease is, and if the government is doing enough to prevent a spread.

The regulations are the first since the disease was found in a Washington state cow on Dec. 23. They include a ban on feeding cow blood and chicken wastes to cattle and using dead or disabled cows to make products for people like dietary supplements, cosmetics or soups and other foods with traces of meat.

The U.S. did take a few steps to prevent mad cow disease after the Britain outbreak. The use of cattle remains in animal feed were banned from the U.S. in 1997, but blood was still allowed, until now. Mad Cow Disease, or by its actual name, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), is believed to be contracted by eating livestock feed containing cattle brains or spinal cords.

Some critics argue that the regulations are a long-time coming, but may not be enough.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a consumer group in Washington, said: “This is long, long overdue. I wonder whether it’s too little too late. They’ve been legally on notice for seven years that they need to close all these loopholes. Everything they’re doing, science organizations have requested long ago.”

The FDA is headed by Dr. Mark B. McClellan, none other than the brother of President Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan. It would seem likely that, like the EPA, the FDA would be uber-industry friendly. Interestingly, the FDA has been cited as one of the more “activist agencies” in the Bush administration and McClellan has made moves that (arguably) hinder business, rather than promote it. For one, he deferred a decision on whether to allow silicone breast implants back on the market, calling for more data on safety (despite pressure from industry). For another, he was willing to consider allowing the prescription morning-after pill, Plan B, to be sold over the counter.
On the other hand, he certainly bows to big business; large drug companies applauded when he banned importing prescription drugs from Canada, which would have hurt U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

The regulations on the cattle industry, stemming from Mad Cow fears, will most likely not be well-received by the beef industry. Some say that when Mad Cow was first discovered, the priority for the government wasn’t to protect health, but industry. The L.A. Times writes:

“Instead, they [government officials charged with overseeing agriculture and environment] all too often leap to the defense of the industry and the safety of every bite of food provided by it. When news of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease came out just before Christmas, the instant response of Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was to reassure us that the 200,000 “downer cows” consumed by Americans in 2003 hadn’t necessarily been diseased. They just couldn’t walk. Except, of course, the one infected with mad cow disease.”

Critics say that had the U.S. been a bit harder on the industry, they could have learned a lesson from what happened in England and prevented this from happening. An editorial in The Nation from Jan. 26:

“By studying Britain’s experience, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration might well have been able to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the United States. Instead, they created what food-safety activist John Stauber describes as “a testing system that was designed not to find the disease.

Despite Veneman’s public reassurances, she could not have known that the food supply was safe. That’s because the United States has failed to follow World Health Organization recommendations that sick cattle be tested for BSE before slaughter. Of 35 million head slaughtered for human consumption in the last fiscal year in the United States, only about 20,000 were tested–as compared with virtually all cattle in Japan and Europe.”

President Bush says he’s not worried, and urges Americans to keep eating beef. And some say that the U.S. is over-reacting. McClellan said that safeguards were already in place, but “The steps we’re taking today are intended to provide even greater security.” Alex Avery, research director of the Center for Global Food Issues says we should listen to experts, not alarmist groups:

“What do the experts and scientists say? A 2001 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis characterized the danger to human health from mad cow disease in the U.S. “extraordinarily low.” Why? Aside from the fact that beef is one of the most heavily regulated and vigorously tested foods within the safest food system ever devised, the mad cow epidemic in the UK taught the entire world exactly how to stop and prevent mad cow disease. Programs were put in place to ensure that we would not see the same thing happen here.”

In fact, some argue that its not special interests that prevent more regulation from occuring, but special interests that created the drama and excitement over finding one contaminated cow. They say organic farmers and vegetarian food companies have a stake in seeing the beef industry deep in controversy:

“Organic and natural foods marketers reached a new low after the detection of BSE in a single cow imported into the United States. In the immediate wake of the discovery, scores of organic food companies, advocacy organizations, and trade groups attempted to exploit the heightened fears of American consumers by falsely promoting their higher-priced products as being safer and healthier.

For example, organic beef is not any safer from Mad Cow disease than non-organic beef, despite the higher price, because the entire U.S. food system is equally well protected.”

Still, beef from organic cows are privy to a different standard than factory farmed meat. An editorial in The LA Times says we might do well to take one from organic farms. The L.A. Times writes:

“Last month, as Veneman and industry officials sought to allay American fears by insisting on the safety of downer meat (then, on Dec. 30, reacting to scandal, quickly banning it), again only the organic standard, and not government regulations, offered significant protection against BSE. Meat and bone meal had never been an acceptable constituent of certified organic cattle feed. Downers weren’t an issue. Organic regulations require that sick animals be given veterinary treatment, not slaughtered for food.”