BSE ... It's What's For Dinner

12 February 2004

By Stentor Danielson

American beef consumers have gotten off easy. Monday, the US Department of Agriculture has ended its investigation into the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- aka mad cow disease -- in American cattle.

The investigation started after a cow slaughtered in December was found to suffer from BSE. Officials recalled meat and attempted to trace the feed from which the infected animal contracted the disease. Though 11 of the 25 cattle suspected of having eaten the contaminated feed have not been found, the USDA concluded that the risk to consumers is low.

While the concluding of this case is relieving, the difficulties encountered by the USDA in tracking down potentially infected cattle, feed, and meat should give us pause. It is still unknown where the feed that infected the sick cow came from, or what happened to the 10,410 pounds of meat that was recalled during the scare. Fifty countries, including major customers Japan and Mexico, have banned imports of all US beef just in case. Our food supply is compromised by our poor knowledge of where food comes from and goes, and our consequent inability to stop the movement of contaminants. It's a worry that goes beyond BSE.

One major problem is the sheer volume of food being processed. Carcasses move at breakneck speed through the slaughterhouse. It's a challenge for workers and inspectors just to keep up, much less do a careful job of ensuring safety in the product.

The economies of scale in food processing encourage the meat industry to work in huge batches. Many cows are ground up at once, meaning one infected cow can lead to 20 cows' worth of infected hamburgers. The same thing happens in the making of cattle feed, as the infected nerve tissue that causes BSE is mixed into a huge batch, to be fed to many cows. Officials had to destroy 2000 tons of rendered protein, used in making cattle feed, for fear that tissue from the one infected cow had been mixed into it.

Scale also comes into play in how cattle (as well as other animals) are raised -- crammed side-by-side into huge feedlots. The size and density of cattle fattening operations makes it difficult for the spread of disease to be monitored and controlled. Coping with the problems of the feedlot introduces new sources of contamination, as animals are shot full of antibiotics and doused with pesticides. Instead of the grass that free-range cattle can eat, most American cows are fed high-protein feed such as the ground-up remains of other animals, the source of BSE infection.

Some people have used the mad cow scare to push the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Certainly you can't get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human infection linked to BSE) if you don't eat beef. But vCJD is only one of the possible threats in an untraceable food supply, and not all of them are confined to animal products.

Take for example the scare over StarLink corn in 2000. StarLink was a genetically modified breed approved by the EPA for use as animal feed, but which did not meet the standards for human consumption -- in other words, whatever you think of GM food in general, StarLink was not supposed to be eaten by people. Yet growers didn't manage to keep the corn supply separate, and StarLink made it into taco shells that were distributed around the country.

Luckily, the StarLink problem was identified and resolved fairly quickly, and there have been no confirmed adverse effects from eating the affected tacos. But that's no guarantee that this sort of problem won't happen again, with worse results.

The difficulty of monitoring, tracing, and isolating elements of the food supply makes the USDA's task of ensuring our health difficult. Yet that untraceability also forces us, as consumers, to place our trust in government regulators. If the USDA can't be certain that my burger was prepared in sanitary conditions, how could I possibly verify it?

Customers buying beef after the BSE story hit the news were put in the unusual position of having to make a risk decision for themselves. Does the slim possibility of getting CJD outweigh my desire for the hearty taste of beef? For most food, the FDA selects the appropriate level of risk that customers will take when it sets its standards and implements its monitoring procedures. The food we buy carries precious little information about where it comes from and what kind of conditions it was produced under. And we have few opportunities to build up any relationship of trust with the people who produce and handle our food. All we know is that the government deemed it “good enough.”

Yet to make this libertarian solution work, the information must be reliable. To achieve that, we need structural changes in our food industry that make products easier to trace and isolate.

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