Guest editorial: Mad cow in America

Let's begin with the ifs. If the Holstein cow that was slaughtered in Washington State two weeks ago proves to be an isolated case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, and if the quarantine of the remaining herd was established in time, and if the cow's herd origin can be determined and the chain of events — including the feed source resulting in that infection — can be identified with no open ends leading into the food supply or the broader national cattle herd, then there is a chance that the American beef and dairy industries will not suffer unduly.

But to every one of these ifs there is a counter-if. And, as the single case of BSE discovered in Canada last May surely proved, this is a disease whose economic effects are dire for the simple reason that a single case leads to the immediate closing of international markets. Within hours after this case was announced on Tuesday, a number of nations closed their borders to American beef, just as we closed our borders this year against Canadian beef and against European beef in the early 1990s.

Cattle growers, industry representatives and the agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, have gone out of their way to assure Americans of the continued safety of American beef. Their assurances are essentially correct, especially if consumers avoid ground beef and products like hot dogs, salami and bologna, which use meat obtained from systems that are designed to extract every last bit of usable tissue from carcasses. BSE is not communicable among cattle on contact, and though humans can contract a version of it, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the rate of infection is very low. All of this will be no consolation to cattle growers, who were enjoying historically high prices thanks to the absence of Canadian beef in the market and the Atkins diet fad. At the very least, they will get an unwelcome shock to the system. And at worst, they face the potential nightmare of the European epidemic, which began in Britain in 1986 and led to the destruction of more than a million animals.

This single case will expose the holes in the American system of meat production and disease testing. A tissue sample was taken from the sick Holstein, who could not walk, before it was slaughtered. The cattle industry has long resisted pressure to stop killing this sort of cow, known as a downer, and meat processors have so far refused to ban neck bones and spinal columns, where BSE proteins can lodge, from automatic meat recovery systems. The government needs to dramatically increase the rate of testing nationwide. Last year, according to Veneman, the USDA inspected only 20,526 cattle out of a herd of 35 million. And though the United States has prohibited the feeding of ruminant proteins to other ruminants, a major source of BSE infection, those proteins can still be fed to chickens, pigs and other animals whose tissues end up in cattle feed. The risks that these gaps in the system pose are real and must be addressed swiftly. The fear is that any changes may come too late.

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