May 2, 2012
Mad cow disease has the power to terrify, but at this point, U.S. consumers have far more to fear from other sources of food poisoning. There have been no human deaths from eating mad-cow-tainted beef in this country. Meanwhile, other food-borne illnesses kill 3,000 Americans a year; close to 400 die from salmonella alone, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
That said, there’s still reason for concern about this country’s efforts to prevent mad cow — formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — despite federal officials’ rosy statements after a California dairy cow was discovered to have the disease. The cow was among the 40,000 cattle randomly tested each year in this country for mad cow, and is only the fourth case to be detected. As spokesmen for the U.S. Department of Agriculture put it, the diseased cow had never entered the human food supply; it was found at a rendering plant, which processes animal remains for use in animal feed and some household products. And it had an atypical form of the illness, one that is more likely to have developed spontaneously rather than having been ingested through its feed, though the USDA is investigating the food records of the dairy involved.
This country’s primary defense against mad cow is a ban on feeding cattle parts to other cattle. That is supposed to prevent one animal from infecting another — both mad cow and the human variant of the disease are spread by consuming parts of infected cattle. But that goal is undermined by one industry practice that is still allowed: Those cattle parts can be turned into chicken feed. Chickens can’t contract the disease, but their uneaten feed and their droppings are then scooped up and processed into cattle feed. This procedure should be banned.
USDA officials touted the California case as proof that their random sampling works. But the agency tests only one in about 900 cattle. The chances are tiny that there was only one sickened animal among the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the United States, and that this level of testing just happened to catch it. The fact that testing found any cases is reason enough to increase testing.
There’s probably no cause for alarm, but that doesn’t mean that the federal government has taken all the reasonably appropriate steps to protect and reassure consumers. South Korea halted imports of U.S. beef for five years after a previous case was discovered in this country, and two retailers there stopped selling last week. Indonesia is also banning imports. The U.S. beef industry itself should be calling for extra measures to protect the reputation of its products.