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From: TSS ()
Subject: Mad cow madness
Date: April 5, 2006 at 6:36 pm PST

Mad cow madness

When the first American case of mad cow disease was detected in December 2003, the Bush administration swung into action. It quickly announced plans for an "enhanced" testing program, talked about creating a national tracking system for beef cattle and acknowledged the need to revise rules governing animal feed. A second mad cow case was reported last year. Federal officials have confirmed a third case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
So where do those plans stand now?

The tracking system isn't yet in place; disease investigators don't know much about the infected animal's background, except that it lived in Alabama for the last year or so. The new food regulations aren't yet final, but what's been proposed contains dangerous loopholes. An inspector general's report released in February found that animals at high risk of infection, including some "downer cows," weren't being screened. And the enhanced testing? That's already begun winding down.

We're not trying to create panic. The odds that someone will contract the human variant of mad cow disease from eating American beef today remain remote. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of several federal agencies charged with both policing and promoting an industry, and it seems as if the promoting part is trumping the policing part. That is a formula for disaster. Sadly, however, it would fit a pattern. Since the very first U.S. case of mad cow, federal officials have worked hard to persuade consumers there was no food safety problem. That became a hard sell after reports that federal regulators couldn't find many of the animals raised with the infected cow.

The second case was even more troubling. Two preliminary tests found that the animal was infected. But when a confirmatory test was inconclusive, USDA inspectors dropped the matter without trying to resolve it. Only later, when pressed to do a second confirmation test, did they recognize their mistake.

In February, the USDA's own inspector general found "a lack of quality assurance controls over (the) testing program," meaning there's no way to know if tests were conducted properly and high-risk animals were appropriately screened. Now, we discover that the enhanced testing program will be phased out, just when it should be expanded.

At its height, enhanced testing was screening less than one percent of American cattle. That might be enough if it were a representative sample. But without a tracking system, we can't know that. In any case, the testing was voluntary.

Mad cow disease is a storm that experts have seen coming for a decade. It swept through Europe, nearly destroying the British beef industry, and spread into Asia. The time to prepare an American response was before it hit.

Instead, the Bush administration has shown few signs of urgency and much wishful thinking.

Raising cattle is big business, and we'd hate to see that industry harmed. But that's exactly what will happen unless the USDA gets on the ball.

It should expand testing, get that tracking system up and running and close loopholes that allow cow blood to be fed to cattle as a "protein substitute." Only then can we be confident that our food supply will be safe until the storm blows over.

Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,1413,164~8309~3283756,00.html


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