The United States has lagged far behind the rest of the world when it comes to testing for mad cow disease. This is primarily because the USDA is run by people looking out for meat industry interests, rather than the public's interests. Like most U.S. government agencies these days, the USDA is run by officials from the industries they are supposed to be regulating, in this case the meat, dairy and processed food industry.
Despite USDA best efforts to test as few cows as possible, mad cow has been discovered repeatedly in the U.S. herd. (For years the U.S. tested only only one out of every 18,000 cows slaughtered, while European countries were testing one out of every three cows, or in many cases -- every cow.)
The USDA says it isn't testing for mad cow as a protective measure to the population, they are testing simply to "surveil" how widespread the problem may be. In other words, they're not testing to prevent infected cows from entering the food chain as many other countries do, they just want to get an estimate of how many mad cows are likely in the U.S. food chain.
The answer, from their own testing, is now available: statistically, there have been at least 777 cows with mad cow disease which have probably entered the food chain since U.S. testing began.
To arrive at this number is simply a matter of mathematics.
According to USDA figures, since U.S. began testing for mad cow 8 years ago, we have tested about 773,000 cows.
Only in the most recent few years did the U.S. begin testing using the more sensitive tests which have long been widely used in the rest of the world.
Since that time, the more sensitive testing has discovered at least three mad cows in the U.S. herd. (The term "at least" applies here because there are many cases of suspect U.S. mad cows where after getting positive results, samples from the cows in question were "lost" or "compromised" by USDA labs, and so without proper samples for additional tests by independent labs, the USDA simply ruled them "negative." There have also been multiple cases of cows suspected of having mad cow being destroyed or "lost" by USDA representatives before required USDA testing could be performed.)
Based on three known mad cows out of the approximately 773,000 cows tested to date in the U.S., we know that 0.0000039% of cows tested in the U.S. herd are infected with mad cow disease.
An estimated 25 million cattle are slaughtered in the U.S. each year, so during the eight years of the sketchy U.S. testing program, approximately 200 million cattle have been slaughtered.
Applying the known mad cow rate in the tested sample of 0.0000039% to the total of 200 million US cattle slaughtered in eight years -- reveals that there were probably 780 mad cows in the U.S. herd during the past 8 years. Subtracting the three cows actually identified by the testing, this means that there were 777 other mad cows which were slaughtered in the U.S. since testing began, but which were not tested for and therefore not detected.
Since flesh from many different cows is mixed together when making hamburger meat, the number of possible consumers exposed to mad cow material is very difficult to estimate.
The North/South distribution of mad cows in the U.S. has been from Washington State to Texas, and East/West distribution is from Alabama to Washington state (basically the North/South and East/West borders of the U.S. cattle industry).
The type of cows found to have mad cow in the USDA results to date were: 1 dairy cow, 2 beef cows.
In an article today for United Press International, science reporter Steve Mitchell writes:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was quick to assure the public earlier this week that the third case of mad cow disease did not pose a risk to them, but what federal officials have not acknowledged is that this latest case indicates the deadly disease has been circulating in U.S. herds for at least a decade.
The second case, which was detected last year in a Texas cow and which USDA officials were reluctant to verify, was approximately 12 years old.
These two cases (the latest was detected in an Alabama cow) present a picture of the disease having been here for 10 years or so, since it is thought that cows usually contract the disease from contaminated feed they consume as calves. The concern is that humans can contract a fatal, incurable, brain-wasting illness from consuming beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen.
"The fact the Texas cow showed up fairly clearly implied the existence of other undetected cases," Dr. Paul Brown, former medical director of the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory for Central Nervous System Studies and an expert on mad cow-like diseases, told United Press International. "The question was, 'How many?' and we still can't answer that."
Brown, who is preparing a scientific paper based on the latest two mad cow cases to estimate the maximum number of infected cows that occurred in the United States, said he has "absolutely no confidence in USDA tests before one year ago" because of the agency's reluctance to retest the Texas cow that initially tested positive.
USDA officials finally retested the cow and confirmed it was infected seven months later, but only at the insistence of the agency's inspector general.
"Everything they did on the Texas cow makes everything USDA did before 2005 suspect," Brown said.
Other experts also question the adequacy of the USDA's surveillance system. The USDA insists the prevalence of mad cow disease is low, but the agency has provided few details of its surveillance program, making it difficult for outside experts to know if the agency's monitoring plan is sufficient.
"It's impossible to judge the adequacy of the surveillance system without having a breakdown of the tested population by age and risk status," Elizabeth Mumford, a veterinarian and BSE expert at Safe Food Solutions in Bern, Switzerland, a company that provides advice on reducing mad cow risk to industry and governments, told UPI.
"Everybody would be happier and more confident and in a sense it might be able to go away a little bit for (the USDA) if they would just publish a breakdown on the tests," Mumford added.
UPI requested detailed records about animals tested under the USDA's surveillance plan via the Freedom of Information Act in May 2004 but nearly two years later has not received any corresponding documents from the agency, despite a federal law requiring agencies to comply within 30 days. This leaves open the question of whether the USDA is withholding the information, does not have the information or is so haphazardly organized that it cannot locate it.
Mumford expressed surprise at the lack of concern about the deadly disease from American consumers. "I would expect the U.S. public to be more concerned," she said.
Markus Moser, a molecular biologist and chief executive officer of Prionics, a Swiss firm that manufactures BSE test kits, told UPI one concern is that if people are infected, the mad cow pathogen could become "humanized" or more easily transmitted from person to person.
"Transmission would be much easier, through all kinds of medical procedures" and even through the blood supply, Moser said.
So is the actual number of mad cows in the U.S. food chain lower than the 777 which we might extrapolate from information USDA has released to date? Or is it higher, or maybe much higher -- possibly explaining why USDA refuses to publicly divulge its testing results?
Based on USDA statistics which have been published, the following chart shows how long it takes to discover mad cow in the U.S. herd, based on the testing rates employed by USDA. Again, these are extrapolating from actual USDA results, and do not include the various suspected mad cow cases which USDA refused to test:
|Testing rate before 1st Mad Cow detected (about 55 per day)||about 0.06% of cattle slaughtered||6-18 years to detect next Mad Cow|
|"Enhanced" testing rate in effect now (about 1000 per day)||about 1.11% of cattle slaughtered||4-12 months to detect next Mad Cow|
|Proposed "scaled back" testing rate (about 110 per day)||about 0.12% of cattle slaughtered||3-9 years to detect next Mad Cow|
What the above chart shows is that at the current U.S. testing rate of 1.11% of cattle slaughtered, the U.S. can statistically expect to find another mad cow every 4 to 12 months, as we have since going on the "enhanced" testing rate. If the USDA scales back the amount of cattle tested daily, it can expect to slow the rate of discovery of infected cattle since you have to test a certain number in order to find the next one.
Coincidentally, the USDA has recently announced it will scale back the testing rate, from about 1,000 per day to 110 per day. By doing so, statistically it should take between 3 and 9 years to detect the next U.S. mad cow, rather than the current rate of one infected cow each 4 to 12 months.
Scaling back the testing for mad cow makes sense from the beef industry/USDA perspective. It is a bit of a public relations problem for McDonald's and the cattle industry in general when the rate of mad cow discovery gets too frequent, as the public starts being reminded too frequently that the U.S. herd is infected with this fatal disease.
For the public to be reminded one to three times a year that it may be eating beef which contains a brain-wasting disease similar to Alzheimer's (and often mistaken for Alzheimer's) is problematic to the sale of beef and beef products. Hence, the USDA won't continue current testing levels lest it cause more problems for the beef industry.
If the U.S. were using the same testing rates and methods as every other major democratic government in the world, it would be interesting to see where the U.S. stacks up in terms of herd infection. But this is the last thing the USDA wants the public thinking about.
In her book, Safe Food, Professor Marion Nestle, Chair of the Nutrition Department at New York University, and author of the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition under C. Everett Koop MD, writes:
To pick just one example: food companies donate campaign funds where they are most likely to buy influence. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisian group that tracks campaign contributions on its Web site, www.opensecrets.org, several food companies and trade associations discussed in this book ranked among the top 20 agribusiness donors in 2001, with contributions ranging from $100,000 to nearly $1 million. The skewed distribution of these donations to Republican rather than to Democratic members of Congress is especially noteworthy. For example, the giant cigarette company Philip Morris, which owns Kraft Foods, donated 89% of more than $900,000 to Republicans. Other companies involved in food safety disputes of one kind or another also donated heavily to Republicans: Archer Daniels Midland (70%), the National Cattleman's Beef Association (82%), the Food Marketing Institute (90%), the National Food Processors Association (96%), and the United Dairy Farmers (100%). With the Republican administration of George W. Bush in power, these groups expect to receive especially favorable attention to their views on food safety issues, and they usually do.
It is a tribute to the current money-driven, lobbyist-tainted, corrupt, corporate-controlled U.S. government that the U.S. beef industry can currently dictate health policy for U.S. citizens. Of course, the government cannot get away with duping the public in a democracy without the complicity of a corporate-controlled media, which is why you won't see exposes like this one on CNN or in the New York Times.
Adapted from a report by Larry Walker at Rangebiome.org.