People who contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease after eating meat infected by Mad Cow Disease (BSE) don't necessarily know it right away. They may have trouble sleeping, get depressed, or have trouble remembering things. But any number of things can cause these problems. As the disease advances, what started as memory loss progresses rapidly into dementia. By the final stages, a patient would most likely lapse into a coma before dying. The disease is incurable.
With more than 183,000 cases of BSE diagnosed in animals in the United Kingdom alone since the late 1980s, nearly 140 people dead, and the emergence of the disease recently in Canada, the United States government should have taken all measures necessary to protect the food supply. Yet it wasn't until a week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the first diagnosis of a cow with BSE in Washington State in late December, that the agency finally banned the use of "downer" cattle. These are cattle that can't walk, along with bovine body parts suspected of harboring the disease, including the skull, brain, eyes, and spinal cord. By then, the American beef industry had already suffered a calamitous crash in prices and the disappearance of its multi-billion-dollar export market.
What explains this governmental inertia? How about money? At least part of the answer is the well-organized, well-funded lobby in Washington that has successfully blocked stronger safety rules, rewarding politicians with more than $27 million in campaign contributions since 1989. Three-fourths of livestock and meat processor moolah has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
What's worse, even now the agency is still not doing all it could. The main way cattle become infected with BSE is by eating other infected animals. While the United States banned the use of cattle in feed for other ruminants -- cows, goats, and sheep -- back in 1997, there is no such requirement for feed destined for chickens and other animals, which don't develop the disease themselves. But it is perfectly legal for cattle to eat poultry litter and outdated pet food, both of which often contain ruminant meat and bone meal that could be infected. Meanwhile, the industry continues to use "advanced recovery" machines to extract every last little bit of meat from carcasses, which can include nerve tissue -- one way the illness is spread.
This record of complacency is all the more astonishing given all the warnings that have been raised about the risks. For years, consumer groups have been urging the USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to strengthen laws protecting the public from BSE. Back in 1997, writers Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber published
"Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" Yes it could, they concluded.
But it was all but ignored by the mainstream media, quite possibly because newspaper publishers and TV broadcasters feared losing millions in lucrative advertising from beef producers.
The number one recipient of campaign dollars from the meat processing and livestock industries so far in the 2004 election, as well as in the 2000 elections, is President George W. Bush, with a total of nearly $880,000. (In the 1996 elections, back when Mad Cow as emerging as a threat, Bill Clinton received nearly $70,000 from these industries.) "I love those cattlemen!" Bush told the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association at a White House Christmas party, according to the association's newsletter, reports "The New York Times."
Since the current president took office, he has appointed at least a dozen officials to the Department of Agriculture who have either worked for agriculture interests or lobbied for them. These included Dr. Chuck Lambert, formerly the chief economist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, now deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. The Bush-Cheney campaign's mega-fundraisers are called "Rangers" and "Pioneers." Among them are at least three cattlemen:
Tobin Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Ranch; Tom Bivens, the owner of Corsino Cattle Co.; and Fausto Yturria Jr., owner of Yturria Ranch.
People shouldn't have to worry that the next bite they take of a hamburger, or the next steak they buy at the supermarket, might have come from an infected cow. Not when there are well-established and simple measures that the government could take to protect the food supply.
Nick Nyhart is executive director of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan, non-profit organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform. This essay is taken from "OUCH!" its regular publication.
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