The beef industry, along with its representatives in the Bush administration, is temporarily off the hook on mad cow after promising not to make us eat diseased downer cows and devising a plan to track cows from birth to the slaughterhouse.
Our cow policy seems predicated on NAFTA. For years, U.S. administrations clamored for free trade with Canada and Mexico. They got their way, and cows can meander back and forth across the border. There are no Canadian cows, stupid. There are only North American cows.
Shortly after announcing its new high-tech tracking system, the Agriculture Department began saying it can’t promise to put one into operation for a year or so. (That’s government jargon for sometime in the distant future.)
Anyway, in the past the beef industry has opposed attaching tags to heifer ears because the tags, which would cost from $5 to $15 per animal, would expose companies to suits by consumers over tainted meat. The Canadians have had such a tag system since 2001. The U.S. depends on various state laws. The Seattle Times recently quoted one cattle rancher as saying that one-third of all dairy cows aren’t even branded.
As for keeping track of what happens to downer cows, in 1997 the government banned the use of downer cow parts in feed additives given to cattle we eat. But the General Accounting Office subsequently found the ban was only partially effective.
Last year the Agriculture Department inspected 20,000 head of cattle out of a total of 29 million. The department lacks adequate numbers of inspectors and restricts inspections to, for example, standing at the back of a big truck carrying cattle and looking into the darkness. Inspectors are prohibited from actually entering the trucks.
Under the new rules, bits and pieces of downer cows can’t be fed directly to us, but they can be included in feed additives given to sheep and hogs that we eat. And downer cows, along with other cattle, can turn up in the oddest places, like in pharmaceutical products and cosmetics.
Because reports are so confusing, readers may want to check out mad cow news for themselves at the websites of the Consumers Union (advocacy.consumerreports.org) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (cspinet.org), as well as browsing the impressive and encyclopedic compilation of mad cow by the Tri-City Herald, a Washington State paper serving communities along the Columbia River (tricityherald.com). Finally, check out Al Krebs’s Agribusiness Examiner.