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Jay Ambrose: Mad about mad-cow overreaction

The chances of anyone in this country eating a beef product contaminated by mad-cow disease is something like 1 in 10 billion, a federal agency has estimated, but that doesn't mean you're safe. Hysteria about the disease could kill you.

The risk exists because new job-diminishing, economy-shrinking regulations are already in the works, and excessive, irrational regulations take lives.

To be sure, the Bush administration has had little choice but to pile unneeded regulations on top of regulations that already seem plenty effective. Some 30 countries have said they will refuse to buy our beef until assured all is OK, thereby threatening to badly damage our $52 billion-a-year beef industry.

So are they themselves mad, these countries? One scientist suggests calculation instead, noting that the foreign politicians are as quick as ours at recognizing demagogic opportunities and that protectionism may also be playing a role. It's next to preposterous to think anything else is at work. The American inspection system seems to be working; out of 35 million cattle slaughtered in the nation annually, inspectors found one (apparently imported from Canada) that had the disease. The government quickly recalled the meat from it and some other cattle that may have rubbed noses with this cow.

Even if you ate the meat, you would be as healthy as before you lifted fork to mouth. You've got to consume such things as the brains or spinal cord to have much chance of contracting the disease, according to most evidence, and the government won't let the beef industry ship those beef parts to you, even if you hunger desperately for them. Some say you could still be endangered because some blood or bits of tissue could splatter on the meat from the dangerous organs when the slaughtering is being done. Maybe, but from what I have read, the possibility is less than bleeding to death from an accidental paper cut.

Still more cows with the disease may be found, but not many; it's spread by putting those dangerous organs in cattle feed, and neither the United States nor Canada allows that. In Britain, where 150 people died from mad-cow infection (the human disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob), there was no such prohibition, and the beef from 200,000 infected cattle was chewed on by millions of Brits. Our trans-Atlantic friends, it seems, were given to chomping on cow brains occasionally, and it's reported that contaminated cattle parts also found their way into other British products, such as steroids and beauty lotions.

In a sane world — and let's all resolve to get closer to that ideal this new year — you wouldn't have to have a secretary of agriculture now imposing bone-crushing regulations because of one sick cow whose distributed meat has yet to cause as much as a loud burp in a human. But here comes Secretary Ann Veneman to the rescue of a cattle industry far more threatened than any consumer. Her solutions include an expensive rule against making food out of the cattle known as "downers," those that have trouble walking because of illness or injury, even though virtually all these cattle are safe to eat and testing can identify those that aren't.

There are representatives of consumer groups who insist such rules don't in fact go far enough, and you wonder whether these people have ever encountered those scholars whose studies demonstrate that the wrong regulations or too much regulation has fatal consequences — not just speculatively, but in tens of thousands of actual cases. Diminish the gross domestic product through regulation amounting to costs of more than $800 billion a year and thousands of dollars per household, and you increase poverty and unemployment and decrease such health necessities as medical care, the scholars tell us. Spend millions on regulations that do little or no good, and you don't have funds for regulations that would save lives.

I don't blame Veneman. The ruination of the beef industry could have results more calamitous than the regulations. But I do blame the foreign politicians who are playing games with the issue. I do blame the consumer groups that show so little practical sense that it's a wonder their representatives cross streets without accident. I do blame U.S. politicians who are trying to make hay out the mad-cow issue. These people are doing more to endanger others than those they criticize, and that should be enough to make us all mad, not mad as in crazy, but mad as in really, really angry.

© 2004 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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