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The American Mad Cow

Updated on November 7, 2010

The American Mad Cow

A somewhat misleading title, since this cow officially does not even exist in the USA...

In 2004, in the middle of the American crisis over Mad Cow Disease , Ms. Harrison, the spokesman of the Department of Agriculture , spouted all sorts of reassuring messages in the world.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy does not constitute any danger whatsoever to the consumer, and American meat is totally safe !

US Department of Agriculture

To begin with, such a message is nothing new for her.

Before she worked in the department, she headed the Public Relations of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, from where she fought this same Department for years, to avoid new and expensive health controls...

In Europe and Japan, the Ministries of Agriculture have since long been dominated by the meat industry, which accounts in part for the rapid spread of Mad Cow Disease.

Great Britain

In 1986, a memo circulated in the British administration, in which was literally stated that the disease "could have potentially serious consequences for the export, and possibly also for people". It went on to say that any further news about the disease had to be kept completely confidential !

It is heartwarming to read that the export was named first, and that people only came in second place...

When in 1996 the first human cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease emerged in Great Britain, the Minister of Agriculture Douglas Hogg said with a straight face that British beef was perfectly safe. But three months later, the Minister of Health, Stephen Dorrell, declared in a hearing that it just might be possible that the mad cow disease had bridged the barrier between the animal and human kingdom.

In the wake of the Bristish political scandal, Europe and Japan sternly refused to import British beef, but under pressure from their own meat lobby, they denied just as hard that they faced exactly the same problem.

Only after general health checks were introduced in several countries, it became clear that these allegations were also false.

France - Japan

In 2001, a French senatorial inquiry showed that the French Minister of Agriculture systematically minimized the risk of the disease, and just as systematically prevented or delayed the introduction of new health measures.  These could apparently have an adverse impact on the competitiveness of the French agri-food industry...

Along the same line, in 2002, a similar committee in Japan also blamed the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture for a "seriously bad administration", and came to the conclusion that for every decision the interests of the industry routinely came first !

The US Department of Agriculture

According to the (very few) criticisms, it is difficult to find a federal agency that is more dominated by industry than Agriculture, whereas it was actually created to control this industry !

For example, Dale Moore, the former main lobbyist of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, was named Chief of Staff of the Agency. Several other leading figures in the packaging industry and the National Pork Producers Council have a seat in it. Their only opposition are consumer groups.

The Department of Agriculture has a dual role. It must ensure that American beef is safe for consumers, and yet it must also promote sales of the American industry.

The industrial and political tycoons have long since in their backrooms completely sacrificed the first object to the second... For more than twenty years every initiative for controls and checks has been successfully torpedoed !

The reason is simple ; if no testing is done for any disease whatsoever, its spreading cannot be verified, no statistics will be available, and finally (but important !), no one needs to bear the cost of such a program...

Health Measures

Given that the concerns of American consumers about the safety of their meat increased with every new case, so called new "security measures" were regularly proposed.  In fact, they were merely window dressings.

Thus it was suggested that downer cattle (cows too sick to stand) should be reported, that they should not be slaughtered, and that their spine should not be used in the food process.

This would allow to trace any sick cows to the farm they came from, and further actions can then be taken to limit the spread of the disease. In many countries such regulations are minimal procedures, and they were turned into law many years ago.

The main intention of the US Department of Agriculture was therefore probably just to have other countries lift their import restrictions on American beef...

What happens in practice is that on American farms, all visibly sick cows are simply shot ! This "resolves" the problem on the spot, and in doing so, the farm skillfully dodges any form of control.

Whatever then happens to the cadaver's meat, bones and blood is anybody's guess...

Therefore there are no Mad Cows in the USA, which brings me back to the title of this article !...

Production Control

Any serious production control still has not been addressed. Yet another proposal for a national program designed to systematically test all animals for mad cow disease was completely dropped.

The administration likes to quote a law from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) from 1997, that prohibits any animal products to be used as animal food. This law, however, has so many holes in it, that you could stampede a whole herd of cows through them...

Animal blood is still mixed into animal feed, and the law is only a paper law, and is hardly, if ever, applied.

Regulations ?

A 2001 study reported that 20% of the American feed companies ran no tests for possible contamination, and that 25% of Colorado companies were not even aware of any measures against Mad Cow Disease !

In 2002, another study reported that the FDA database was so botched, that it could not even be used to do any serious checking. Fourteen years after the European ban on animal protein in cattle feed, the FDA still does not have a complete list of feed mills and farms !

The administration bases its arguments on statistical analysis by the Harvard Center. These are calculated by computer models on the spread of the disease. But the Harvard Canter prudently adds that no statistics or numbers exist about the introduction and the progress of the disease, and that therefore their analysis cannot be formally validated...

Imported Beef

Next to a national slaughter production of more than 30 million animals, the United States imports 1.7 million animals from Canada, and 2.6 million from Mexico, where the administration is probably even slower.

Out of the total 34 million animals, not even 20,000 animals were tested !


In Belgium, more than 400,000 animals are tested yearly, on only a fraction of the U.S. production. In Japan just about every animal is tested.

American consumer groups demand that widespread testing for mad cow disease be implemented immediately, and that contaminated meat immediately be taken off the shelves.

Current removal of contaminated meat is still voluntary in the US, and (not surprisingly...) not very efficient to eliminate the contaminated meat from the supermarket.

Consumer groups want to split up the Department of Agriculture into two independent Agencies, one of which would be responsible for safe food.

The Present

In September 2010, the European Commission published proposals to reduce the cost of guarding against BSE and its human form, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has claimed the lives of 169 British people.

It said that any changes would be based on sound science, but acknowledged it was "impossible" to remove all risk of the disease entering the food chain.

Since 1986, 181,114 cattle have been confirmed with BSE, resulting in the culling of four million cattle, but in recent years the disease has been in sharp decline. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of annual cases in Britain fell from fifty-three to nine.

The European Commission said that it wished to downgrade the rules because of the disease's decline, and to better concentrate on other malignant conditions such as salmonella and microbial resistance, that pose a greater threat to human health !

To be continued...


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