Tell the whole truth

There can be little doubt that the discovery of an American cow sickened by mad cow disease is bad news for business.

In situations like this, people turn to the government expecting complete, honest and accurate information. That’s part of what government is for.

Lessons can be learned from the way the mad cow situation has been handled. Media turned to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who in a press conference on Dec. 23 said, “We remain confident in the safety of our food supply.”

Veneman reacted speedily, getting information out.

“[The] USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service is working quickly to accurately determine the final disposition of the products from the animal,” she said.

The processed meat went to California, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Nevada and the territory of Guam.

Other information is not being released. While it is known that “small Asian and Mexican markets” received the meat in Nevada, which markets received the meat have not been named. That hurts confidence that the feds have the public’s best interests in mind. How do we know whether we or our favorite restaurant bought tainted meat, if we don’t know where it was sold?

There are other issues that point out the short-sightedness of our government when faced with something as predictable as a mad cow outbreak in the United States. For example, even though the cow was “downed,” incapable of standing or walking, it was sent to a slaughter house on Dec. 9. That was two weeks before the tests were performed in Ames, Iowa, and the news broke.

Had provisions not to allow downed cattle to be sent to slaughter remained in agriculture bills for the last two years, the American people would never have been put at risk. Once again, our federal government allowed money (provided by the beef industry’s lobbyists) to come before people. And it wasn’t just Republicans; the Agriculture Department originally turned down the idea in 1998, when Democrats had the White House.

Veneman went beyond facts to instill confidence in American beef by saying that the Agriculture Department has had safeguards in place since 1990 to check for mad cow disease and that 20,526 cows had been tested in 2003 in the United States. “This is a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working,” Veneman said.

That’s misleading. According to the Agriculture Department, 130,000 “downed” cattle are slaughtered every year. The 20,526 tested cattle are a drop in the bucket compared to 37 million that go to market every year. In comparison, Europe tests one in four cattle for BSE, or about 10 million animals annually.

The government says most scientific evidence suggests that people are not in particular danger even if they eat the muscle meat of a cow infected with the disease. It’s good that the government keeps pounding that point home. If people panic because of faulty, missing or misleading information, thousands of jobs will be needlessly lost, and an entire industry will be irreparably damaged.

Our federal government must get as much information to the public as possible, and take real steps to limit possible future outbreaks, including creating a national registry of cattle to allow better tracking.

Local governments can learn that open and honest policies of information dissemination breed trust on the part of the citizenry.