Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mad Cattlemen Disease

by Kyle Michaelis
The instincts to protect ones livelihood and industry are understandable but they should never run the risk of costing human lives. Such, however, seems to be the case when the Nebraska Cattlemen recently questioned the USDA for breaking protocol and, basically, being too careful in their testing for Mad Cow Disease. The Wednesday World-Herald reported:
Members of the Nebraska Cattlemen think the U.S. Department of Agriculture veered from its protocol by allowing a new test of a previously tested animal, which then indicated a potential case of mad cow disease.

In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, leaders of the group said they "need and encourage your solid leadership" in the testing program.

Johanns announced last Friday that the USDA Inspector General's Office had decided to retest tissue from three cattle that tested "inconclusive" for bovine spongiform encephalopathy last year. After the inconclusive reading, the USDA used its standard, more extensive test that yielded negative results.

Last week, however, a sample from one animal produced a positive result in the "Western blot" test, which is used by foreign countries. A sample will be sent to a lab in Weybridge, England, for further testing to confirm the results.

Nebraska Cattlemen asked why the USDA allowed the Western blot test after government officials had determined a negative result with their own testing method, which has been called the "gold standard" for finding mad cow disease.

The cattlemen's group also wants to know why the testing procedure was "enhanced," meaning a larger sample was used than in previous tests. "Perception in the industry is that the sample was concentrated in order to achieve a 'weak' positive," the group's letter states.

Ed Loyd, a USDA spokesman, said that the agency hasn't changed its testing protocol and that it always has used the Western blot in instances when a sample was starting to degrade....

Nebraska Cattlemen isn't the only group questioning procedures in the USDA's mad cow testing program. Consumers Union, a national group that advocates for stronger government safety measures, Tuesday urged the USDA to adopt the Western blot test as a standard testing method.

For the Nebraska Cattlemen to question the most thorough testing of their product possible is simply unconscionable. While the market for beef has proven quite susceptible to disease scares and bad publicity, these short term worries can not be allowed to trump the long-term sustainability of a healthy and trusted American food supply.

Are they actually trying to dismiss this alarming test result as a "weak positive?" There is no such thing as a weak case of Mad Cow Disease, I assure you. There is far too much at stake over these steaks. Those in this industry should know better.

As further proof of the dangerous game Nebraska Cattlemen are playing, the World-Herald reported thus earlier in the week on this same situation:
Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, said he spoke to several producers Monday who questioned why the USDA would retest. The animal did not make it into the food supply, Kelsey said, so the additional testing isn't a big deal.

"What's frustrating is this shouldn't be a news story at all," he said. "This shouldn't be an issue."

Questions arose in the USDA's Inspector General's Office because the United States uses a different test from the standard test in Europe and Asia. Those countries use the "Western blot," which is considered more sensitive and requires more tissue than the standard testing method used in the United States.

Kelsey and the Cattlemen don't seem to get it. Where the health of consumers in America and around the world is concerned, the USDA can not be too careful. If caution makes the Nebraska Cattlemen's lives more difficult by making the markets more volatile, that is certainly unfortunate but may be unavoidable.

I could support steps that assure some measure of secrecy until results are final, thereby preventing needless market scares. These steps, though, should not include turning a blind eye to inconclusive results and refusing to recognize European testing standards that may actually be more effective than our own. If this is really what the Nebraska Cattlemen are asking of the USDA, it can only be assumed that greed has woefully corrupted their judgment.

It is exactly this sort of throwing their weight that makes any level of secrecy in testing dangerous because Cattlemen have proven so willing to use intimidation to get their way. They tried it with Oprah Winfrey when she raised a red flag about Mad Cow, and here it seems they're trying to do it to Mike Johanns and the USDA. Do they need disaster to wake-up to the risks? Let's get serious and remember what our mothers taught us about an ounce of prevention. Your mothers did teach that one, didn't they?


Post a Comment

<< Home