Their reactions were as swift as they were predictable. Informed last month that a cow in Washington had been diagnosed with so-called mad cow disease, Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman and spokespersons for McDonald's Corp. reassured Americans that beef is safe.
We have come to expect corporations to be knee-jerk defenders of their products, but it is surprising when government regulators play the same role. Even as public health concerns grow, the beef industry continues to receive a free ride from the Bush administration. Nonetheless, it is already paying a high price for that ride. Americans may have an instinctive distaste for government, but they expect government to assure the safety of food, water, and drugs. Many Americans, some of whom even voted for Bush, recognize close connections between the administration and the industries it is committed to regulate.
Reassurances from government that the food supply is safe are now taken with more than a grain of salt. Even if this scare turns out to be overblown, the industry is sure to suffer major losses. Paradoxically, these losses may far exceed the costs that a reasonable safety regime would exact.
Mad cow did not fall from the sky. Since the outbreak in England almost two decades ago, food scientists, veterinarians, and molecular biologists had all been concerned about its possible emergence in the United States. Several months ago, Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist at the University of California, visited Secretary Veneman to argue for the feasibility and desirability of testing all cattle for the disease before slaughter. Not only did the administration resist such recommendations, it also worked with the industry lobby to resist congressional action to remove sick animals from the human food chain.
The administration and industry defenders argue that our beef is safe because the remains of cattle are not fed to other calves But these remains can be sent to chicken, the remains of which can then in turn be fed back to cattle. No one really knows whether there are dangers in this practice. In addition, cattle are weaned on blood proteins, which some experts think can also carry the disease.
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Regulations promulgated late last December, which would at last remove sick animals and potentially risky brain and nerve tissue from the human food chain, are only a small step in the right direction. If the meat industry really were as safe is the administration has long maintained, why would additional precautions be necessary? It seems hard to believe that meat will be safe as long as animal remains are fed to other animals. And given the long incubation period of this disease, beef safety will require more than sporadic testing. Each cow should be tested before slaughter. The technology has made tremendous strides, and the cost of such tests would add only a few cents a pound to the retail price of beef.
If you owned a farm and sold beef to your neighbors, would you refuse to use a test to establish its safety if that test added 1 or 2 percent to the cost of your meal? I suspect most of us would not. Although the image of the merchant eager to prosper by serving the needs of his neighborhood is often used in economics texts, the world of corporate business is vastly different. Lobbyists for meatpackers and cattlemen resist broad testing. Like too many U.S. industries, it prefers maximizing short-term profits even at the risk of substantial long-term loss. The meat packing industry is highly concentrated, with four giants controlling more than 80 percent of the market. These corporations are publicly traded and are obsessed by the quarterly bottom-line. The cattlemen who sell to them are being continually squeezed.
Globalization has surely brought its benefits. The sophisticated tests used to detect mad cow would be inconceivable without the spread of ideas across borders and major expenditures in basic science. But the mad cow crisis demonstrates that the flight of capital across borders and the pressures of modern markets often undermine our ability to make the best use of advanced science in the interests of ordinary people.
Veneman announced that she intended to feed her family beef for the holidays. I have heard no subsequent reports about her holiday meals, but her boast reminds me that economic pressures blunt even our most humane and considered responses. I doubt she thinks any less of her family than the rest of us do of ours. Nonetheless, I suspect that the secretary's response is viewed by most Americans as though it came from McDonald's rather than from a public servant. Under the present circumstances such cynicism may be both justified and healthy. A regulatory regime governed by the industry's short-term profit imperatives is a recipe for disaster even for the industry.