Mad, scary cows

Recently, two things have become undeniably clear about mad-cow disease: It does exist in American cattle, and our government isn’t doing enough to keep infected beef out of the food supply.

Mad-cow disease—or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—is an always-fatal wasting disease of the brain that is spread through the consumption of infected tissue. Though cows are naturally vegetarians, modern agribusiness made them cannibals by feeding them meal made from slaughterhouse waste. In addition to containing ground beef and bone, this meal often includes nerve tissue, which is most likely to contain the disease. When cows eat infected tissue, they contract BSE, and when humans eat infected cows, they get a neurodegenerative disease (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob) that is invariably fatal and has killed about 150 people worldwide.

When the first BSE-infected cow was discovered in the United States in 2003, more than 60 countries promptly banned American beef, and the federal government tightened beef-industry regulations. Unfortunately, it didn’t go far enough. It banned the use of beef-and-bone meal as food for cows, but it didn’t ban its use for chickens, or the common practice of using waste scooped from the bottom of chicken cages to feed cattle, which means that the meal still reaches cattle. The government also failed to ban the use of blood as a milk substitute in feeding calves, which may carry risks of transmitting the disease, and the use of “advanced meat recovery” machines.

The United States still allows far too many practices that are banned in other nations, and recent weeks have brought disturbing revelations about lack of compliance with what few regulations there are, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was forced to release documents detailing more than 1,000 instances in which meat-processing plants violated laws designed to stop the spread of BSE. It’s true that this number represents a very small percentage of the approximately 37 million cattle slaughtered in the United States each year. But with a disease that is 100-percent fatal, 99.9-percent compliance just isn’t good enough, especially now that it is established that BSE exists in U.S. cattle.

The BSE-infected cow found in 2003 was born in Canada, but in June, the USDA confirmed a case of BSE in a cow born and raised in this country. That’s extremely significant, because it is possible—perhaps even likely—that other cows in the same herds also were exposed to tainted food and may be harboring the disease.

The time has come for the federal government to stop treating the situation as a public-relations problem and take decisive action. Beef-and-bone meal should be banned altogether, along with advanced-meat-recovery machines. The USDA should up its own testing program, which is budgeted to test only 60,000 cattle next year, and set up a system by which beef producers could pay for certified testing and then market their beef as BSE-free. Until those things happen, the risk will only increase.