Profits and lobbying sidetrack food supply safety.
by Aria Seligmann
Mad dogs, Englishmen and baby vampires. Sounds like a bad sci-fi flick, but these and other characters are all part of the drama unfolding in our nation's food supply. The first case of mad cow disease that is public knowledge in the U.S. was discovered two weeks ago in a downer milk cow in Washington state. Since then, serious questions concerning the USDA's regulations and implementation of those regulations have been raised.
Downer animals are those literally not standing, either due to illness, injury or disease, including but not limited to mad cow disease.
Just this week, tests revealed the Holstein came from a province in Alberta, Canada, where a case of mad cow disease was discovered last spring. Cows from that herd were shipped to a dairy farm in Washington state, and a massive slaughter of other cows from that herd has now begun.
Because the diseased cow was tested in a lab back in Iowa, by the time the results came back, the cow had already gone into the food chain all up and down I-5. The meat couldn't be held for the results to come in as it had to be shipped fresh.
Mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephaly (BSE), is caused by a prion, or protein, found in the brains of cattle. Prions cannot be killed off in any sterilization process. If a prion is consumed, it can cause the disease, though symptoms may not show up for years.
A chronic wasting disease similar to scrapie in cattle, BSE causes the brain to break down, literally taking on the appearance of a sponge, and leads to dementia, paralysis and death. The human variation is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
CJD normally only affects people over the age of 50 and is often confused with Alzheimer's disease. When a group of teenagers in Great Britain came down with CJD in 1996, no one knew what caused it, but one group of researchers suggested the link to BSE.
Previously, researchers had studied the link between scrapie and BSE. Sheep with scrapie are unsalable as human food, so when an outbreak occurred in England in the '90s, farmers began slaughtering them and using them as cattle feed. Cattle are herbivores by nature, and when some contracted BSE, so similar to scrapie, some cried, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."
Scientists began researching the link.
According to Eugene molecular biologist Tom Pringle, who has studied mad cow disease and the cattle industry extensively, it takes 1/56 of an ounce of infected meat to become infected.
Although the industry and British government dismissed the idea of the disease coming from tainted feed, the facts couldn't be ignored: More cows became ill with BSE, were slaughtered, chopped up and then fed to other cows, forcing them to be cannibals. Suddenly, BSE spread rapidly throughout herds, and countries around the world slammed their doors shut in Britains' feed face. But Canada continued, and continues, to import British feed.
The mad cow was born in 1997, which is of some import. During that year, a huge problem occurred in northern Alberta with millions of cattle exposed to contaminated feed. After that, very few countries would accept Canadian beef, but the U.S. continued to import it, accepting 80 percent, or 1.7 million live cattle per year to American farms. In 2001 alone, 57,000 live dairy cattle replacers were brought in.
Through the research shared by Pringle and others (see www.mad-cow.org),recommendations have been made to the cattle industry and to governments throughout the world concerning the best way to protect cattle — and humans — from the illness. But the U.S. government, under pressure from a powerful meat lobby, has been negligent in implementing those recommendations, which include testing.
|Bovine prion protein fragment|
Tests for BSE are now both accurate and inexpensive. "Testing would add only 3 cents per pound for beef," says Pringle, adding that not running those tests makes little sense. Meanwhile, in Asia and in Europe, where mad cow has been found (in the U.K), tests on cattle are routinely performed. In Japan, every cow is tested, in results that are conclusive in cows as young as 23 months.
In the U.S., the FDA has banned the practice of using cattle as feed for other cattle. But in both 2000 and 2002, at the request of Congressman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the General Accounting Office found serious lapses in U.S. companies following that regulation, and until then, there had been no enforcement of those regulations.
That's not a huge surprise if you follow the money. Using downer cattle as feed saves a lot of money, and in 2000, the livestock industry contributed $3.7 million to Republican campaigns.
Until just last week, there had been no U.S. law prohibiting the sale of downer cattle for human consumption. The USDA banned the sale of such meat to the public school lunch program several years ago, but it was still allowed onto grocery store shelves.
"It's as if we're a starving, third-world country, feeding ourselves the lowest quality food," says Pringle.
The Dec. 30 ban on the sale of downers was announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman as a move to restore public confidence in the nation's meat supply. This was a big turnaround for the Bush administration, which had blocked, along with meat industry lobbyists, an identical measure in Congress only weeks before. In fact, for the past 12 years, the meat industry has consistently opposed legislation banning the allowance of downer cows into the food supply.
Veneman's announcement was not meant to appease only U.S. residents. It was also to encourage foreign governments to resume imports of beef. In the past two weeks, tons of U.S. beef have been turned away from Asian markets, and even a shipload of french fries sizzled in animal fat was rejected.
The market has not reported what it did with the meat, although speculations of it being dumped into the ocean into the food chain of whales, dolphins and fish may not be far from the mark.
The Cattlemen's Beef Association is going along with the ban, according to a Washington Post report that quoted Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, as saying, "We're going to support the actions of the secretary. We're going to have to manage it through as an industry. We think the industry will rise to the challenge."
Until the ban of last month, just under 200,000 sick or injured cattle were shipped to slaughterhouses per year, with only about 5 percent being tested for illnesses such as mad cow disease.
In November 2003, Republican Congressional leaders deleted a measure banning the slaughter of downed cattle from a spending bill.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who for years has worked on legislation to ban downer cattle from the food supply, told the Post the industry "shot themselves in the hoof" by not banning the practice.
Meanwhile, animal rights activists are calling this a victory, both for improving slaughtering methods, and for not eating meat.
But Pringle says, "People are always going to eat beef. The question is: Is it going to be a boutique, grass-fed, no hormones, free-range, holiday-only meal, or three meals a day like we do now?"
He sees a shift toward the natural variety of meat, but says there is not enough land for the meat industry to switch over to the whole organic, grain-fed, free-range ideal.
Meanwhile, although the FDA has banned feeding cattle to cattle, some ranchers are still feeding animal protein to cattle.
"Calves are taken off milk and put on blood," says Pringle. "We've gone from cannabilism to vampirism."
The blood could very well come from a downer cow, as there are currently no regulations banning that practice.
Cow brain matter is also found in cosmetics and in membranes used in surgery. While opponents to any testing say the meat supply is safe, because cows' heads are removed from the carcasses and meat does not come into contact with brain matter, some methods of slaughter prove otherwise. Until just last week, a common killing method was by lethal air injection — a blast of air shot into the forehead that causes brain matter to dissipate into the spinal cord and blood stream, thereby potentially infecting all parts of the cow. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has now called a halt to that method of slaughter, which may make beef safer, but cosmetic companies and research labs are still using cow brain matter.
Vaccines and Transfusions
Worldwide, there have only been 153 documented cases so far of cow-to-human transmission of BSE/CJD. But in England last week variant CJD blood-to-blood transfusion occurred. "This is the second wave of this stuff — from human to human," says Pringle.
Vaccines are another source of concern. Some vaccines, such as those for polio, have been made with fetal calf serum in England. "There are no known problems, but they are taking tremendous risks that involve large numbers of people," says Pringle.
What are You Feeding Scruffy?
All parts of cows, including brain matter, are allowed into pet food. With no regulations banning the practice, how long will it be before we begin breeding mad dogs? — AS
by Bobbie Willis
The regional/national mad cow scare has only reinforced for local, small-scale farmers certain principles around food and economy, namely keeping food sources as close to home as possible and keeping food production at a scale that is manageable and safe. Jack Gray, co-owner of Noti's Winter Green Farm, which produces certified organic fruits and vegetables and 100 percent grass-fed beef (soon to be certified organic, as well) says, "People really need to know where their food is coming from. It's important to establish relationships and trust between consumers and food sources."
One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep those food sources close to home. "The cattle industry is so big," says Aaron Silverman, manager of local poultry processor Greener Pastures Poultry and member of Creative Growers in Noti. "And there's so much movement of [cattle] within that industry … Large batches of animals coming from lots of different places are being processed together."
Winter Green's Gray says, "Maybe someday technology will be able to track down sick animals [more efficiently] with things like microchips. But technology will never be able to do what local farming can do — to follow an animal from beginning through to the end … we've actually been able to keep [recent] beef production limited to animals born and raised here on the farm." According to Winter Green's website, "Cows have long been the unifying force behind our farm's fertility program. … We have chosen to take full responsibility for the animals our farm depends on. We treat them well because they deserve it and they are vitally important to our farm."
Scale — or more specifically farming on a large, industrial scale — poses big problems with an outbreak of this nature. Paul Atkinson of Laughing Stock Farms (see EW 10/23) says, "The scale of the current industry … has yet again to do with 'not local.' It's amazing how many places that meat could be in so short a time. If even the butchering were local, the problem might have remained local, rather than national."
Because their work, as these farmers describe it, revolves around providing as safe and unadulterated a product as possible, they seem mostly unfazed by the scare. "It's been something of a topic of conversation," says Silverman. "But I don't know anyone who's surprised by it." Winter Green has had more inquiries than usual about their beef in the last few weeks, but supplies are always limited — they process only about 20 cows a year for beef.
While there is a pointed irony in federal regulations that can conceivably cripple smaller farms with complicated bureaucracy yet allow for the current mad cow situation, Silverman says, "The USDA/FSIS staff that I have … had contact with are truly trying to ensure safe food for the public. While some of the regulations seem onerous for a small-scale producer, it's not usually the intent. The rules have to cover everyone, and the bigger plants dominate the landscape."
Silverman even sees hope for the future: "[Our] experience has been one of helpfulness … and we expect that this positive relationship will continue through the planning and construction of an expanded processing facility in the near future."