Why has the USDA ordered meat processors to stop testing for mad cow disease?

Mad Hatters

Spongy degeneration of the brain – that’s what happens when cattle develop mad cow disease. And it appears that some USDA officials have developed a similar spongy brain problem with their strict policy that beef producers are not allowed to test their own animals for mad cow disease.

Now I’ll admit that mad cow disease (more formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy – BSE) is very rare. But if a meat producer wants to test his cattle, what’s the harm? Why would the USDA step in and prevent the testing?

Answer: Money + power = influence. Pure and simple. That’s what drives decisions about our food safety. And you really won’t believe the hilarious tortured logic that government lawyers use to justify this insanity.

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

On December 23, 2003, beef producers were blindsided by the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in the U.S. And Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kansas, was particularly hard hit.

Creekstone is a high-end beef processor. For years, this large, modern operation has produced high quality beef that’s guaranteed free of antibiotics, growth-promoting drugs, and added hormones. By and large, Creekstone beef is a long step up from the typical beef product most consumers purchase at their local grocery.

With the 2003 mad cow scare, Creekstone’s business dropped off sharply, primarily due to loss of foreign sales. But Japanese meat buyers promised to start buying again if Creekstone executives could assure them that all their beef was tested for BSE.

This was a no-brainer. According to a 2004 New York Times report, Creekstone’s foreign sales accounted for $200,000 per day, while the total bill for testing the animals ran about $20,000 per day. So Creekstone started testing each animal, reopening the Japanese market.

Enter the USDA – to the rescue!

In April 2004, the agency ordered Creekstone executives to stop testing their cattle, reasoning that there was no scientific justification for testing the relatively young animals that Creekstone raises. And that’s a valid point. Only older cattle develop BSE. But that detail didn’t matter to Creekstone’s Japanese customers – they wanted guarantees that the animals were disease-free. Sowhat’s the harm in testing?

And that question brings us to tortured logic item number one: According to the Associated Press, the major meatpacking companies feared that consumer pressure might lead to a demand for every meat producing company to test all their animals.

And wouldn’t that be just toosafe?

I’ll bet the ranch that “consumer pressure” doesn’t mean you and me – it means Japan and other very lucrative foreign markets. And here was Creekstone, raising the bar on their highfalutin no-antibiotic, no-added-hormone beef, just further messing up business for ConAgra and Cargill and other meatpacking giants, dagnabbit!

False assurances, served fresh

So Creekstone execs did what they had to do – they sued the USDA. And they won. And what did USDA officials do? They just couldn’t help themselves – they appealed, further delaying Creekstone’s right to test.

Which brings us to a fine spring Friday afternoon in May 2008, when Creekstone attorneys and Justice Department attorneys appeared before a panel of U.S. Court of Appeals judges in Washington, D.C.

Creekstone lawyers argued that the company is not disobeying any law or regulation by testing their animals. Nice point.

And now for tortured logic item number tw The Justice Department attorney told the panel that Creekstone executives “want to create false assurances.”

Seriously – how do you make a statement like that without laughing? As if more testing creates false assurances, and less testing is somehow reassuring.

You want false assurances? Here’s a Grade A, USDA-inspected false assurance for you: The USDA used to test about one percent of all U.S. cattle for BSE. But earlier this month the Korea Times reported that the testing program has been reduced by 90 percent! And to absolutely assure that these testing levels stay low, the agency also blocks companies that produce BSE testing kits from selling their kits to Creekstone and other meat processors.

Why in the world is the USDA so doggedly committed to allowing as little BSE testing as possible? Connecting two simple dots might answer that question. Dot one: The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (representing about 27,000 ranchers) strongly supports the agency’s Creekstone ban. Dot tw The agriculture lobby is one of the most diverse and powerful players inside the Washington Beltway.

Money + power = influence, and logic takes a holiday.

“Government Asks Court to Block wider Testing for Mad Cow” Sam Hananel, Associated Press, 5/9/08, ap.org
“Lee Says Ban on American Beef Possible” The Korea Times, 5/7/08, koreatimes.co.kr
“US Beef-Testing Method Raises Ire” The Korea Times, 5/12/08, koreatimes.co.kr
” Barred From Testing for Mad Cow, Niche Meatpacker Loses Clients” Donald G. McNeil, Jr., The New York Times, 4/18/04, nytimes.com