Friday, September 05, 2008

How Now Mad Cow

by Barbara D'Amato



There I was, minding my own business as I always do, reading the news, running my eye down the headlines. A story said COURT: US CAN BACK MAD COW TESTING. Fine, I thought. My government is protecting me. I went on to the next story.

Wait! That didn’t seem like what I had read. No, it was

COURT: US CAN BLOCK MAD COW TESTING

A federal court of appeals has decided in a case brought by Creekstone Farms Premium Beef that the administration can forbid meat packers from testing their beef animals for mad cow disease.

What?

The US Department of Agriculture tests one per cent of US beef animals for mad cow disease. Mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is an always-fatal neurological illness contracted from eating infected meat. Just three cases of mad cow have been reported in the US, all in cows, not people. There have been a hundred and fifty human deaths worldwide. So this is not exactly a huge health issue. However, much of the world refused for a while to import US beef after a 2003 case here. While trade has largely been restored, this is a potentially big economic problem, I’m sure.

Creekstone Farms is a small Arkansas-based producer of premium beef, particularly black angus. It claims humane treatment of its animals and has a line of “natural” beef, raised without hormones, antibiotics, or animal scraps in feed. Their products are accepted for EU export. They wanted to add that their beef had been tested for mad cow.

Creekstone claimed that the Agriculture Department can only regulate treatment, and since there is no cure and no treatment for mad cow disease, they should be permitted to test. The court of appeals, saying testing is a part of treatment, denied the permission. If you don’t understand why testing is a part of nonexistent treatment, I don’t understand either.

Anyway--why doesn’t your government want testing, even when the company, not the government, is paying for the test?

Well, big meat packers claimed that if little Creekstone tested, then they would have to also.

In fact, if a lot of meat packers didn’t want to test, and marketed their beef at lower prices, I would think that cheaper meat would probably appeal to a lot of consumers. And given the extremely low level of risk, they’d be making a reasonable bet.

Is the government afraid that tested beef in the market makes the supply of untested beef look bad?

Are they afraid some mad cow cases will turn up in the cattle and cast all beef in the US into disrepute?

Are they afraid their test will fail to uncover actual mad cow cases, that the infected beef will be marketed abroad, and cause illness, and then shut down all beef sales from the US?

Would they prefer cases not to be found?

So let’s suppose you want to buy meat that has been tested. You realize the danger is minuscule, but you’re willing to pay a premium for the beef. You can’t. Your government won’t let you.

Oh well, let them eat fish.

23 comments:

Bill Cameron said...

But the fish is full of mercury.

Picks By Pat said...

This is a classic case of the Dept of Agriculture(which is supposed to promote the American farmer & cattleman, by the way) interfering with the free market and hindering exports. Creekstone Farms should be free to test it's beef. And big beef producers are free not to test theirs. I'm surprised the court agreed with the administration. They must have gone to the Stalin School of Law.

the Bag Lady said...

Oh, my goodness, you have touched a nerve with me!
I am a Canadian cattle producer, and in 2003, our world fell apart when BSE was discovered in a cow from a ranch not far from my home.
Your gov't immediately closed the border to all Canadian beef, claiming there was no mad cow disease in American beef. The Canadian gov't set about tightening the regulations regarding Canadian beef, testing a huge number of animals in slaughterhouses across Canada. Which resulted in a few more cases being discovered.
Your gov't was still claiming they had no mad cow disease. The border remained closed. The Canadian cattle ranchers were devastated - several committed suicide rather than face the consequences of a collapsed market.
Your gov't's approach to BSE and the Canadian gov't's approach are quite different. If there is BSE in our cattle, we want to know. Your gov't doesn't. And especially doesn't want the rest of the world to know!
The border is finally about to open to older Canadian cattle. The American ranchers are still trying to keep it closed, claiming they are still concerned about BSE getting into the "clean" herds in the States. The truth is, they were making scads of money on the backs of the Canadian ranchers, whose product is just as healthy as theirs.
In my humble opinion, testing for BSE is something that should be done on a regular basis. Then again, what do I know?
I'll just continue to eat my own beef because I know exactly what it has been fed (hay, grass, oats) and what else has gone into it.
Oh, and all those tests where your gov't claims the results are inconclusive? You can bet your bottom dollar they found BSE.....

Gosh, I do prattle on, don't I? Sorry.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Bill Cameron--you are right. At leaat there are lists that apparently tell the amount of mercury in which fish.

Picks by pat--this is paternalism of the worst sort. If I want tested beef I should be able to get it. Like you, I'm surprised the court agreed with the administration and with such tortured logic.

Bag lady--loved your response. There's no reasonable doubt about BSE in beef. After all, the few cases that have been found didn't get there from fairy dust. Our government has been foolish and irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

Barb, you are too kind in accusing the court of using tortured logic. The Virus-Serum-Toxin Act of 2007 gives the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the use of biological products in the treatment of domestic animals. But all Creekstone Farms did was to TEST dead cows using a test kit. Is this "treatment"?
Two judges out of three said yes: Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson and Judge Judith W. Rogers; Chief Judge David Sentelle dissented. Suppose you take your child's temperature; could you be charged with practicing medicine without a license because you are engaged in the unauthorized medical treatment of your child? And (although I have no analogy for this one), how does testing a dead cow for mad cow disease amount to treating that cow?

It is obvious that Congress can only use words when it enacts statutes. If courts take a word like "treatment" and say that testing and diagnostics are also covered, then the courts are simply misusing the language for their own purposes. Yet if you can misuse the words of a statute, then it doesn't matter what the statute says; you can make it mean anything you like. It's not merely tortured logic; it's an abuse of language.

The media and the politicians don't know what to make of such cases. The majority in the Creekstone case was neither liberal nor conservative, so there's no story there, right? To be sure they were "activist" judges,
but no one cares unless an activist judge is also a liberal.

The Creekstone result was not an aberration. Judges are sloppy with the language whenever they want a case to come out the way they prefer it to come out. Lawyers and law professors know this because they read lots of cases. But who else reads lots of cases or would ever want to read lots of cases?

-- Tony D'Amato

Pete said...

This comes as no surprise once you realize that the USDA is not a regulatory body, but a promotional agency for the U.S. agriculture industry. The big meatpackers clearly don't want widescale testing, and the USDA dutifully does their bidding. Yet another example of the conservative belief that what's good for corporations is good for America, even if harmful to everyday Americans.

ab said...

It's always about bottom line, isn't it?

Sean Chercover said...

Barb - Thanks for calling our attention to this. And Tony - thanks for the additional info.

Fascinating and depressing story.

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