Published on Saturday, December 27, 2003 by the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)
Mad Cow Out of the Barn

Now that the first case of mad cow disease in the United States has been confirmed, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman's subservience to the agribusiness interests she once served as a lobbyist is no longer merely troublesome. It's dangerous.

Veneman was put in charge of the Department of Agriculture by President Bush because he knew the longtime advocate for the genetic modification of food, factory farming and free trade policies that favor big agribusiness over family farmers and consumers could be counted on to choose the side of business interests over the public interest.

Veneman did just that when she announced that mad cow disease had been found in the United States. Instead of offering a realistic response to the news, she was still doing public relations for agribusiness. She declared the case was isolated, praised the USDA for a "swift and effective" response, and discounted any risk to human health.

Unfortunately, because of the USDA's lax approach to inspections and regulation, Venemen has no idea whether she is right.

What Veneman does know is that BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, nicknamed mad cow disease, is a far more serious matter than she let on. She knows that this disease devastated the British beef industry in the late 1980s and 1990s, requiring the slaughter of millions of cows and the expenditure of billions of dollars. She knows the human form of mad cow disease so far has killed more than 130 people in Britain. And she knows that an isolated case of BSE in Canada earlier this year led countries around the world, including the United States, to stop importing that country's beef.

Above all, Veneman knows that the USDA is not doing the inspections that are necessary to expose the presence of BSE in the United States and that could prevent its spread. While the agriculture secretary was talking about how unlikely it was that the diseased beef would end up on food shelves, she neglected to mention that the United States has never put into place the sort of stringent inspection program that exists in many countries in Europe and Asia, where all animals are tested before beef is made available for human consumption.

At every turn, Veneman has been "extremely disingenuous," according to Madisonian John Stauber, co-author of "Mad Cow USA." "My presumption," he says, "is that mad cow disease is spread throughout North America at some level, but because our testing program is so inadequate we have not identified it."

The world community tends to trust Stauber's analysis over that of Veneman's. Within hours after it was learned that a sick animal had been found outside a slaughterhouse in Washington state, close to a dozen countries suspended U.S. beef imports.

At this critical point, Stauber and other public health activists are more credible sources than Veneman for honest analysis of how widespread the threat could be and how it can be contained. Why? Because, unlike Veneman, the public health activists are relying on Food and Drug Administration data.

According to Stauber, an FDA memo in 1997 predicted that if a single case of mad cow disease were found in the United States, and serious steps were immediately taken to prevent the spread of the disease, inspectors might still uncover 299,000 infected cows over the next decade. That is because beef blood, beef fat and other animal proteins - which can spread the disease - are still fed to calves across the nation. Only as those calves come to maturity will the full extent of the spread of BSE be known.

By failing to acknowledge genuine concerns regarding BSE, and by failing even now to respond to those concerns, Veneman has failed U.S. farmers and consumers. She should be ashamed, and the rest of us should be looking for better sources of information about the safety of our food supply.

Copyright 2003 The Capital Times