Wither Mad Cow and the USDA

I’m a bit late to the Mad Cow story from last week, but several folks have asked for my opinion and I thought best to share here instead of via e-mail.

First and foremost, the fact that the USDA wants to cut back on testing should surprise no one. Their job is not public safety, but rather “farm” advocacy. I use the quotes around “farm” as the reality of the farm is no longer the tractor, ducks, geese and silos, but rather the Confined Animal Feeding Operations from which we Americans get a fair amount of our beef.

It’s these owner of these CAFO’s who will benefit the most from this decision, as less testing means less of a chance of finding a cow with BSE, and all of the subsequent bad press that follows. Find a mad cow in Alabama means no longer selling beef in Japan or South Korea. A multi-billion dollar loss of revenue is never a good thing, and someone, somewhere was going to push various lobbying buttons to see how to regain some of that marketplace back. It’s about money, not about health.

But is the USDA justified in making this cost decision? I’ll repeat some of the points I’ve made in previous posts about Mad Cow.

  • Their sampling data was ridiculously low: The USDA loves to throw out numbers, but never a benchmark to which one should compare the number. They love to say that they’ve tested 759,000 cattle over the past 18 months. The number they don’t tell you is 154,000,000 – which is roughly the cow population (including those slaughtered) during the same time period.

    If you divide the amount tested into the population, you get a statistical sampling of .5% of the cattle population was tested. Is this a large enough sample? I don’t know. But I promise you that the USDA and the cattle industry would prefer if people didn’t know this fact.

  • Their testing methodology was suspect: They only tested cows that showed possible symptoms. Downer cows and cows that were agressive or agitated were tested. But BSE doesn’t make every cow show outward signs of the disease. Cattle can have the disease for months or years before showing any outward symptoms.

    Oh, and testing was voluntary and not done randomly. The Agriculture Department’s inspector general found serious flaws in the testing process

  • They’re ignoring Canada: Canada has found 7 cases of BSE. These Canadian cattle intermingle with herds from the States. Since the border opened up between the two countries, the USDA has not commented on the Canadian cases at all.
  • A new wrinkle in the feed: The USDA touts the new feed restrictions put into place around 1998 as if it’s a line in the sand. Before 1998, feed had cattle remnants within it. Afterwards, not so much.

    Because of this, the USDA and the cattle ranchers have implied that cattle born after the feed restriction were less at risk than those born prior.

    However, the most recent case of BSE from Canada was found in a cow less than five years old, who had been fed feed regulated under somewhat similar restrictions (if anything, the Canadian feed restrictions are more stringent than those here in the US). The USDA nor the cattle industry has commented on this finding either.

I could list three or four more items here, but I think you get the point.

Now it is possible that there is no or little issue with BSE in our meat supply. But there is no way we could have learned this from the USDA. There’s simply too many variables that they haven’t addressed.

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