Driven by its enthusiasm for deregulation and free trade, the Bush administration seems poised on the edge of an abyss from which there is no retreat: introducing an epidemic of mad cow disease to North America.
Last week the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed a second case of mad cow disease. There now have been four confirmed mad cow cases in North America within the past two years. The most recent case is especially ominous, because the cow in question was born after 1997, when a ban on certain animal parts in feed was put into place in both the U.S. and Canada. Scientists believe that the disease is spread through the feed system, which has generally contained bits and pieces of other animals. A study by Canadian food inspectors showed that two-thirds of the Canadian feed and half the imported feed labeled “vegetarian” in fact contain animal parts.
“This latest case of mad cow highlights that dangerous loopholes in both countries’ laws still exist,” says Michael Hansen, a scientist at Consumers Union. “In the United States, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still allows cattle remains to be fed to other animals, such as pigs and chickens, whose remains can then be fed back to cows. Even the remains of an animal known to carry a form of mad cow disease could go into rendered feed, under current FDA rules.” Not only are these feed bans inadequate, Consumers Union points out, but they are not well-enforced.
The border has been closed to Canadian beef imports since May 2003. But the Bush administration, under pressure from the feed industry, is intent on reopening it this March, come hell or high water. The American Feed Industry Association, which represents 690 companies that produce three-quarters of the commercial feed and pet food sold in the U.S., is pushing hard to get the border open, and so is the American Meat Institute.
But not everyone is for dropping the ban. “This news, coupled with reports of frequent violations of the feed ban in Canada, should move the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw or at least suspend its rule allowing a resumption of Canadian beef imports into this country,” Roger Johnson, North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner, said last week. “The Canadians need to trace and test all cattle that may have come in contact with contaminated feed.” The lobbying group R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America has sued the Agriculture Department to block entry of Canadian beef. According to the Canadian Press, “The U.S. beef ban has cost the Canadian industry some $4 billion [Canadian] and thousands of jobs.”
The most recent mad cow discovery doesn’t seem to have changed anything. After meeting with American ag officials, Dr. Brian Evans, Canada’s chief veterinarian, told the Canadian Press last week that U.S. officials “are committed to” dropping the import ban, adding, “They feel the [new] rule [dropping the ban] is fundamentally sound and that Canada is fundamentally a minimal-risk country that fully meets those criteria.” Ann Veneman, the outgoing secretary of agriculture, stood by the decision to open the market. “We will continue to investigate this process and determine if there’s any different actions that need to be taken. But at this point, everything that we’ve put in place remains on track.”
But John Stauber, who has written about mad cow and is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, said, “Britain’s experiences . . . prove that only with a total and complete ban on the feeding of rendered slaughterhouse waste to livestock can the spread of mad cow disease be halted. In both Canada and the United States annually, billions of pounds of rendered slaughterhouse waste—primarily mammalian protein, fat, and blood—are still legally fed to cattle and other livestock. The 1997 regulations, the so-called ‘firewall feed ban,’ are a joke.”
Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti