Why is the disease threatening our health and our economy called “mad cow”? Cows are innocent herbivores that would never knowingly consume the rendered remains of their fellow creatures. Perhaps the malady should instead be called mad executive, mad bureaucrat, mad lobbyist, mad cattleman or mad politician-thus paying due homage to all those who vacillated when the nation was confronted by an obvious and preventable threat.
Their past opposition to increased federal testing of slaughtered cattle, which would add a few cents per pound to the cost of beef, certainly appears “mad” in retrospect. Having pursued short-term interests, the industry and its friends in government face potential losses in the billions of dollars from banned exports and falling prices.
While considering a more appropriate nickname for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, let’s think of this ailment as a political metaphor for the ruling ideology that mindlessly opposes government regulation. Like a rogue molecule tearing away at vital tissue, right-wing extremism has ravaged the regulatory systems that should protect the food supply from both misshapen proteins and crooked feedlots. Ideology has bored deep holes into the political cerebrum, making our government too stupid to act in our defense.
Whether the cow in question came from Canada or the United States will scarcely matter in an era of free trade and agricultural globalization. What matters to the countries that have already banned American beef imports-and what should matter to American consumers as well-is how government responds to the crisis.
Recent history offers little reassurance. As The New York Times reported last week, the Nobel-winning biologist who is the leading authority on B.S.E. and its causes has been trying to warn the Department of Agriculture about the need for universal testing since last May, when the disease first showed up in a Canadian cow. After five months, Dr. Stanley Prusiner finally got a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, only to discover that “she did not share his sense of urgency.”
Dr. Prusiner was not alone in warning the government that its measures against B.S.E. are far from adequate. Last July, Consumers Union wrote Ms. Veneman a detailed letter urging her to quickly and rapidly expand testing of animals most at risk. The nonpartisan consumer group protested the government’s feeble enforcement of an existing ban on livestock feed containing rendered animal products, which are suspected of spreading B.S.E. Consumers Union also noted that regulations still don’t prevent central-nervous-system tissues, which are most likely to be contaminated, from entering the food supply.
Investigations by the General Accounting Office have repeatedly revealed these failures to anyone who cared to know. Senator Tom Harkin, the tough Iowa Democrat who demanded the G.A.O. probes, also voiced his concerns about lax enforcement last June.
So the government and the industry can scarcely claim that nobody told them about this danger. Why did they not act?
The underlying causes are depressingly familiar: Agribusiness executives seek to minimize the cost of insuring food safety, even after observing the devastating results of inadequate protection in other countries. They and their lobbyists give millions to politicians and political parties, obtaining undue influence over policy. Those politicians appoint regulators who regard their mission as pleasing rather than policing the corporate sector.
Such stubborn resistance to regulation doesn’t even serve the true interests of the industry-as so many other businesses have discovered after their reputations and profits were ruined by scandal. When the damage has already been done, regulation suddenly seems more attractive. Today the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which has opposed more stringent testing all along, says it will accept more regulation. But that acceptance is almost certainly too tardy to prevent billions in lost exports, and the persistent loss of confidence in an American product.
Protecting the food supply requires stronger government that can eventually insure better farming and production practices. This would mean not only far more stringent testing, but more humane treatment of animals and cleaner facilities; it would also mean the encouragement of organic agriculture instead of factory “farms.”
Until those enlightened policies take hold, however, the least that government can do is to adopt better standards. It could begin by banning spinal columns and neck bones from use as food for animals or humans. Agribusiness methods for extracting every bit of meat from a carcass have contaminated the food supply with brain and spinal-cord tissues that can carry the B.S.E. infection.
The Department of Agriculture must expand its testing system immediately. Last year, the agency tested fewer than 20,000 cows in a population of about 100 million. In Europe, every animal above a certain age is tested, and in Japan every single animal is tested, with no exceptions.
Of course, Europe and Japan don’t suffer from the brain-wasting disease that afflicts our politics and policy.