March 30, 2007

USDA: Stop Testing For Mad Cow Disease!

Imagine that a private organization began offering free HIV testing for anyone that wanted it, giving people the opportunity to take control of their health. Now imagine that the federal government threatened to sue said organization, claiming that widespread HIV testing could potentially cause false positives, thereby harming the HIV testing industry. Does this seem assinine and backwards to you?

Well, that is exactly what the federal government is doing when it comes to testing for Mad Cow Disease. Not content with reducing their own testing by 90%, the USDA has threatened to sue a midwest ranch who requested permission to voluntarily test all their cattle for BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow). The USDA feels that allowing one company to make sure its customers can eat mad cow-free meat would be detrimental to the meat industry as a whole. Huh? That's right: free enterprise be damned, let's not give the rest of the industry any ideas. God forbid we should have massive testing for a fatal disease! And at the expense of...the company producing the meat, no less!

One of the principle tenets of sustainability is the recognition that each individual choice we make has an impact that extends beyond our immediate actions. Unfortunately, we continue to allow the federal government to make these choices for us. More significantly, we allow the federal government to make more of them, at a greater cost, with a wider impact. It is unconscionable that a company trying to provide vital information to its customers is being hamstringed in such an insidious way. But why is the Department of Agriculture so opposed to Creekstone Farms' plan to test for BSE? The reasons are threefold:

It might undermine the USDA's current testing system.

The USDA claims that allowing a private producer to conduct widespread testing would cast a poor light on the government's current practice of random testing on less than 1% of slaughtered cows by implying that Creekstone's method is better than the USDA's.

It might cause widespread testing to become a national standard.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association supports the government's position, agreeing that should Creekstone be allowed to voluntarily test all their animals, other producers would be pressured to follow suit to accomodate consumer demand.

It might put the fear of God into meat eaters.

If Creekstone increases the frequency of testing, it stands to reason that they will be likelier to test more positives and/or false positives, statistically speaking. Either way, it might affect consumers beef buying habits at the expense of the cattle industry's (aka large meat processors') profits. And we all know how concerned the USDA is with the industry's profits.
This is the kind of backdoor regulation that most consumers never find out about. Luckily, a federal judge has ruled that the USDA doesn't have the authority to regulate the BSE test to the degree that it was. If the USDA doesn't appeal, then Creekstone can go ahead with its $500,000 testing lab. So what can you do to ensure your meat is safe? The best you can do is take the time to understand what you're putting in your body:
  • Know your supplier. Choose meats from local ranchers who have committed to humane and/or sustainable practices (you can search the Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest).
  • Ask them questions, like do you use steroids or sgrowth hormones? Do you allow animals pasture land or space for free roaming? Do you feed animals antibiotics or animal by-products (the big one)?
  • Don't make assumptions about what you read on labels. You may need to do a little legwork to discover what phrases like "humanely raised" and "free range" really mean to each individual supplier.

Further reading:
Creekstone Farms' press release
2004 article on original USDA refusal
Letter to the editor from one angry cattle veterinarian

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1 Comment(s)

Anonymous M said...

scary indeed....i am making an effort to cut out all red meat from my lifestyle

M

9:19 AM  

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