Friday, January 02, 2004

The Biggest Threat: Mad Government Disease

And speaking of threats to the public resulting from anti-regulatory philosphies, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has a frightening column in the NY Times today discussing the roots of the Mad Cow problem.

The first problem is that the Department of Agriculture is filled with former industry executives, including its spokesperson, Alisa Harrison who comes from the National Cattlemen's Beef Assocation. In fact,
Right now you'd have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate. Dale Moore, [ Agriculture Secretary Anne] Veneman's chief of staff, was previously the chief lobbyist for the cattlemen's association. Other veterans of that group have high-ranking jobs at the department, as do former meat-packing executives and a former president of the National Pork Producers Council.

The Agriculture Department has a dual, often contradictory mandate: to promote the sale of meat on behalf of American producers and to guarantee that American meat is safe on behalf of consumers. For too long the emphasis has been on commerce, at the expense of safety. The safeguards against mad cow that Ms. Veneman announced on Tuesday — including the elimination of "downer cattle" (cows that cannot walk) from the food chain, the removal of high-risk material like spinal cords from meat processing, the promise to introduce a system to trace cattle back to the ranch — have long been demanded by consumer groups. Their belated introduction seems to have been largely motivated by the desire to have foreign countries lift restrictions on American beef imports.

Worse, on Wednesday Ms. Veneman ruled out the the most important step to protect Americans from mad cow disease: a large-scale program to test the nation's cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Despite these measures, there are still other serious problems that have not been dealt with. The U.S. still allows the "really stupid" practice of feeding of cattle blood to young calves,
More important, the ban on feed has hardly been enforced. A 2001 study by the Government Accounting Office found that one-fifth of American feed and rendering companies that handle prohibited material had no systems in place to prevent the contamination of cattle feed. According to the report, more than a quarter of feed manufacturers in Colorado, one of the top beef-producing states, were not even aware of the F.D.A. measures to prevent mad cow disease, four years after their introduction.

A follow-up study by the accounting office in 2002 said that the F.D.A.'s "inspection database is so severely flawed" that "it should not be used to assess compliance" with the feed ban. Indeed, 14 years after Britain announced its ban on feeding cattle proteins to cattle, the Food and Drug Administration still did not have a complete listing of the American companies rendering cattle and manufacturing cattle feed.
Right now, the federal government is relying on "reassuring" studies by the notoriously anti-regulatory Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, based on models that can't be validated because we don't test enough cattle to know whether these studies are accurate.

So what needs to be done? According to Schlosser,
begin widespread testing of American cattle for mad cow disease — with particular focus on dairy cattle, the animals at highest risk for the disease and whose meat provides most of the nation's fast food hamburgers.

In addition, we need to give the federal government mandatory recall powers, so that any contaminated or suspect meat can be swiftly removed from the market. As of now all meat recalls are voluntary and remarkably ineffective at getting bad meat off supermarket shelves. And most of all, we need to create an independent food safety agency whose sole responsibility is to protect the public health. Let the Agriculture Department continue to promote American meat worldwide — but empower a new agency to ensure that meat is safe to eat.

Yes, the threat to human health posed by mad cow remains uncertain. But testing American cattle for dangerous pathogens will increase the cost of beef by just pennies per pound. Failing to do so could impose a far higher price, both in dollars and in human suffering.
What we're addressing here, in the previous article on the failure of the Bush Administration's voluntary global warming strategies and with the virtual closing of OSHA's regulatory shop that we've written about so many times before, is the fundamental question of the role of government in protecting people from the enemies that may threaten our welfare, security and safety. These enemies don't just hijack airplanes and fly into skyscrapers. They don't just use mythical weapons of mass destruction. They undermine and disarm us from within, eliminating any penalties or safeguards against those who would make a profit at the expense of the health and safety of the American public.

Workplace accidents kill more than twice as many people every year terrorist killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Where's the outrage? Where's the response?