Amending the US beef business

Greater consumer protections could result from heightened scrutiny of industry practices.

"There are two things you don't want to see being made," German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck reputedly said. "Sausage and legislation." The mad-cow episode in the United States illustrates that quip as no other story in recent memory.

Americans today are learning far more than they ever wanted to know about the process of turning cows into thousands of products that even a hard-core vegan would have trouble avoiding - cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fire-extinguisher foam, lubricants, the glue that holds plywood together. Not to mention the steaks, roasts, hamburger, and other meat items that human carnivores regularly devour.

The process is necessarily violent and mechanical, involving slicing, grinding, and high-pressure blasting and compression. It's much safer than it was years ago - both for slaughterhouse and meat- processing workers, as well as for consumers. But it has also run the risk of mixing the potentially disease-causing parts of the cow (brain, spinal cord, and parts of the intestine) into the muscle meat and other food products - including sausage - that many Americans eat every day. Meat from the infected Holstein was mixed in with 20,000 pounds from other cows before being shipped to market.

Some doctors now suspect that people diagnosed with Alzheimer's may in fact have the human version of the neurological disease, which incubates years before appearing in the form of mental and physical degeneration. No one knows for sure if there is any possible link to animals with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (the scientific name for mad-cow disease), however. That's because until now the inspection system for cattle headed for the slaughterhouse has been relatively minimal.

The other part of von Bismarck's comment has also been illustrated in the mad-cow story. That's the way federal laws have been crafted to deal with a $175 million industry that feeds millions here and abroad while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Cattle interests have given more than $20 million to political campaigns since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Although the GOP has received about 80 percent of this largess, Democrats and Republicans alike - most from farm and ranching states - have been recipients.

Meanwhile, many top Bush appointees in the US Agriculture Department (USDA) come from the industry. Secretary Ann Veneman's chief of staff is the former chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, one of Washington's most powerful special-interest groups. The department's spokeswoman was the trade group's director of public relations.

Some say that having former beef- industry officials in senior positions brings a high level of expertise to the job. But critics claim that industry influence has led to the following: Defeats for federal-budget increases aimed at ramping up inspections. Loopholes in the Food and Drug Administration's 1997 ban on the use of cattle remains as an ingredient in feed for ruminants (cows, goats, and sheep). And a refusal - until now - to restrict the practice of allowing "downed" cattle (those injured or too sick to stand) as part of the food chain.

Five years after the 1997 ban, the General Accounting Office (the investigative arm of Congress) criticized the FDA for laxness in policing the use of cattle remains to feed other livestock.

"BSE may be silently incubating somewhere in the United States," the GAO warned in 2002. "If that is the case, then FDA's failure to enforce the feed ban may already have placed US herds and, in turn, human food supply at risk."

Critics say the USDA in particular has a conflict of interest. It's supposed to promote US agriculture while also protecting the health and safety of those who consume farm products.

Up until now, it seems the weight of this balance has favored the industry. But the USDA's quick response to the mad-cow scare is seen by all parties as moving the political scale back toward consumer protection. Last week, the USDA moved to restrict "mechanically separated beef" and ban the use of "downed" cattle for human food. And this week, federal officials announced plans to destroy 450 calves in Sunnyside, Wash., including a calf born to the heifer infected with BSE.

"Excluding cattle brains, eyes, spinal cord, and guts from the human food supply is certainly a step in the right direction," says Michael Greger, a medical doctor who studies BSE for animal rights and consumer groups. "Unfortunately," he adds, "the US still feeds those potentially risky tissues to pigs, pets, and poultry."

At the same time - more bad news for those who'd rather not know the origins of their sausage - the litter from chicken coops (grain, feathers, and manure) still can be swept up and fed to cattle under the new regulations. "The major concern in feeding rendered cattle remains to other animals," says Dr. Greger, "is that the cattle remains may directly, or indirectly, find their way back into cattle feed, which could potentially spark a British-style outbreak of mad-cow disease."

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