WASHINGTON - A group of activists and consumer advocates is accusing the U.S. government of doing too little to stop the spread of mad cow disease in the country because of pressure from the powerful beef industry.
They also say that a number of senior employees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) come from the meat and dairy industries and might have loyalties to their former employers.
Last week, U.S. officials said they would immediately implement a new set of safeguards to protect the nation's beef supply against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) also known as ”mad cow” disease, after an infected animal was found in Washington state.
A human form of the disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or vCJD, a rare but fatal brain disorder, can result from consuming contaminated cattle products.
The safeguards include removing non-ambulatory or ”downer” animals from the human food chain, along with all brain, spinal cord and nervous-system tissue that could carry BSE; adding protections to mechanised meat processing; and instituting a national animal identification programme.
Downers are animals that are unable to walk to slaughter because of disease or broken legs and other injuries.
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman has also called for a team of international experts to review inspection procedures and make recommendations following completion of the current probe into the case of the single BSE-positive cow.
The team will be led by Dr. Ulrich Kihm, the former chief veterinary officer of Switzerland, who now owns a consulting company, Safe Food Solutions, Inc.
But the announced measures failed to allay consumers' fears both in the United States and abroad.
Cattle-futures prices have fallen sharply, and none of the more than 30 nations that have required import bans on U.S. beef are reportedly moving to ease their restrictions. The controls have already cost the U.S. beef industry millions of dollars in exports.
Consumer groups and activists here Monday decried the measures as grossly lacking. Some say Britain, for example, managed after 15 years to defeat the disease by putting a ban on feeding slaughterhouse waste to livestock and by testing millions of cattle before consumption.
”The USDA's latest steps on mad cow disease are pathetic,” said John Stauber co-author of the book 'Mad Cow USA'. ”Today in the U.S. farmers legally feed billions of pounds of slaughterhouse waste to cattle, and even wean calves on cattle blood protein.”
Farmers in the United States routinely feed animal remains, blood and manure -- particularly chicken faeces -- to cattle.
In Europe, where one of every four cows is tested, and Japan, where authorities test 100 percent of cattle bound for human consumption, officials have found a number of cases of mad cow disease in animals that appeared perfectly healthy.
”France, which has only a fraction of the U.S. cattle population, tests more cattle in a single week than the U.S. has tested in a decade,” said Michael Greger of the Organic Consumers Association.
Over the past two years, the USDA has tested only about 20,000 cattle, or less than 10 percent of the downer animals, for mad cow disease annually.
”I suspect the recent cases of mad cow disease in the U.S. and Canada are just the tip of an iceberg, one that will continue to grow until dangerous feeding practices are completely banned,” said Stauber.
In May 2003 a single BSE-infected cow was discovered in Canada. Since then, many countries, including the United States, have refused to import Canadian beef. U.S. officials say that the animal discovered in Washington state was likely purchased from its northern neighbour.
The activists charge that the U.S. beef industry is behind the lukewarm testing here as it fears increased examination could unearth more cases, which could further harm beef sales.
”The industry has been fighting tooth and nail against testing ever since I got involved with this back in 1993, because the last thing they want to do is something that would find a case,” Greger said.
”Now that a case has been found, they don't want to find case number two or case number three or case number four.”
Consumer groups fear the government's position is dangerous -- as it tries to simultaneously protect the industry and maintain public health.
”Three years ago, we submitted a list of recommendations to the U.S. government regarding mad cow disease -- none were implemented,” said Simon Chaitowitz of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based non-profit group that promotes preventive medicine.
”We believe the USDA has not instituted these protections because many of its top staffers come from the meat and dairy industries, and they care more about protecting cattle industry profits than public safety.”
For example, Veneman's chief of staff, Dale Moore, used to be executive director for legislative affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington, a powerful industry lobby group.
USDA Press Secretary Alisa Harrison, Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programmes Chuck Lambert and Senior Advisor on Food and Nutrition Issues Elizabeth Johnson all previously worked for the same organisation.
U.S. officials defended their record Monday, saying that tests have been targeted mainly at high-risk animals, those showing symptoms of nervous system disorder or inability to walk.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a body of the USDA, told IPS the agency will be increasing the number of animals it tests. But FSIS Spokesperson Steve Cohen said exactly which animals will be tested has not yet been determined.
”At the time the BCE-infected cow was discovered, they (inspectors) were testing many times more cattle than international standards would have indicated for a country that had no BCE,” he said.
The measures failed to satisfy at least one former official, who said the USDA controls created ”a voluntary or piecemeal system” that was not sufficient to protect either public health or consumer confidence.
Carol Tucker Foreman, chief of the agriculture department's food safety programmes during the administration of former president Jimmy Carter (1977-81), acknowledged the new USDA moves as positive but said ”industry pressure has kept the Bush administration from taking all of the steps necessary to protect the public”.
”FDA did not expand the feed ban to preclude the use of all ruminants in animal feed. Nor did FDA announce the assignment of enforcement resources sufficient to assure the ban on feeding ruminant material to bovines is effective,” she said in a statement.
Greger also faulted U.S. authorities for treating BSE infection as a conventional disease, in which case they would quarantine the herd and block distribution of the meat.
”It (BSE) is not passed from animal to animal,” he said. ”It's what this animal ate four years, five years ago. It is not 'where did the meat from that animal go'?. What about all the meat from all the other animals that ate the same infected feed so many years ago? That's the concern.”
© 2004 Inter Press Service