You remember me yarping about “e Coli conservatives,” right?

In my series of posts on the whole melamine poisoning issue recently you might recall me breaking off the term “e Coli conservatives” in talking about how our regulatory function has been co-opted by people who see protecting industry as a more important calling than protecting, you know, us.

Well, y’all are gonna love this latest development.

U.S. government fights to keep meatpackers from testing all slaughtered cattle for mad cow
The Associated Press
Published: May 29, 2007WASHINGTON: The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.

The Agriculture Department tests fewer than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. A beef producer in the western state of Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cows.

Larger meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone should test its meat and advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive tests on their larger herds as well.

The Agriculture Department regulates the test and argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry. (Story.)

No, this isn’t from The Onion. This is a real example of your gubmit looking after you.

Please, pay close attention to that last line above: “The Agriculture Department … argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry.” Rick Perlstein over at OurFuture.org calls it “State socialism in defense of Mad Cow,” and it’s hard to argue. I mean, how are you going to accuse a guy of hyperbole in light of what the Ag Dept actually says?

Concerned yet?

19 replies »

  1. That article only flirts with the truth. There is currently only anecdotal evidence that BSE, which itself is not contractable by humans, may have been a contributing factor to a number of vCJD cases in Europe. The epidemiological theories on this are still a bit slapdash, and little is yet known about comparitive transmission of disease strains of BSE prion.

    Thus far there has not been a single proven incident of a human getting sick from eating BSE-tainted beef in the United States, which makes forcing expensive tests (that are, in fact, laden with false positives) on the meat industry a bit hasty of a move.

    Remember: allocate defensive procedures based on the severity AND likelihood of a threat. The severity of this is as yet unknown and the likelihood is still almost nil.

    There are unconfirmed reports (some in Wikipedia) that the US gov’t is obstructing the availability of BSE testing, this is absolute bullshit. Non-lethal BSE prion detection has been available for the last four years and is, I believe, fielded by a Bay Area biotech outfit.

  2. Even if I buy this all without objection, this isn’t about forcing companies to test. It’s about PREVENTING COMPANIES THAT WANT TO DO THE TESTING from doing so.

  3. Furthermore, the companies want to test because their products are being barred from markets in Japan and Europe, places where all cattle are tested. That’s because there have been proven cases of humans getting sick from eating BSE-tainted beef (just not in the US

  4. I don’t have time to really dig into this, but I smell spin. The USDA had opposed the sale of rapid field test kits for various reasons, but, as I said before, methods available for four years now don’t need to necessarily be in “kit” form. I also eye with great suspicion any journalist’s assessment of motives and intent in the absence of any source quotes or references.

    There are documents regarding the case in question here: http://www.r-calfusa.com/BSE/bse_fmd.htm if you’re curious – I’ll dig into them when I have the time.

  5. If you can find something I can’t, go for it. Based on everything I’m seeing today on the story it looks like Creekstone wanted to test, a court ruled that they could, and now Bush is going to challenge that. Everything up to the new Bush announcement is on-the-record fact and the Bush response is consistent with the development of the case to this point.

  6. @ Robert – I’m not seeing the suggestion that “companies” want to test, just Creekstone Farms (a high-end organic beef producer), and there’s no word on them wanting to do this because of foreign import restrictions. The author of the article is saying that larger meat producers fear Creekstone’s taking the initiative because then they’d have to follow suite, which sounds stupid in that they target completely different markets. It’s Kroger vs. Whole Foods. I don’t buy it, there is something else going on here.

  7. You may be right. But whatever else there may be, it’s not in evidence. And as I say above, the way the story is presented is wholly consistent with everything about the case that we have on record to date.

    Your observation that it’s Whole Foods vs Kroger is apt, but I think it may prove my point, not yours. That would certainly be consistent with the theory that large industry interests want to be protected against possible bad press emerging from the actions of smaller competitors.

  8. Stickyboy, I remember reading of another company (from Washington state) that had also announced its intention to test all cattle but had not filed suit. I can’t find the reference, however, and I may be wrong about that.

    But if it’s spin we’re talking about, I would tend to trust the regulatory agencies of the 53 countries that had banned US beef (as of 2006) rather than the industry-dominated Bush Agriculture Department.

  9. Okay maybe I am curious enough to dig around a little (oh you GUYS) – Robert was correct about Creekstone’s wanting to export, but Sam might be interested in what the USDA had to say about denying test kits to Creekstone.

    Read this doc, it has a decent summary: http://www.r-calfusa.com/BSE/03-29-07%20–%20Court%20Memorandum%20-%20Creekstone%20Can%20Test,%2018pgs.pdf

    Choice quote:

    “Allowing a company to use a BSE test in a private marketing program is inconsistent with USDA’s mandate to ensure effective, scientifically sound testing for significant animal diseases and maintain domestic and international confidence in U.S. cattle and beef products.”

    So the USDA isn’t denying testing, but telling Creekstone that they can’t conduct the tests in a vacuum, but rather must do so at USDA-approved test facilities rather than the lab they built in order to enforce compliance with USDA testing norms. Creekstone’s request that the USDA designate their lab as a satellite facility was rejected.

    The whole point is moot, however; Creekstone’s primary stated goal was to revive Japanese confidence in their beef by testing all their own cattle for BSE, but Japan resumed importation of US beef on their own a year ago. Creekstone then stated that OTHER potential customers had told them that they would buy more beef – at a higher price – if it had been tested for BSE.

    Or if Creekstone merely claimed it had.

    This is sort of what I’m talking about. The journalist was not telling the whole story and inserting unsupported innuendo, there was more here than met the eye. The facts were in evidence, but we were only hearing 1/2 of one side of the story.

  10. Okay, so this adds some texture, but I’m not sure that it rebuts the premise of the original story. AP has the USDA saying that they can’t risk fallout from a false positive. While what you provide here is useful background, it’s not really fair to say that this comprises “the rest of the story.” It’s kind of a different story.

    And you’re accusing the reporter of playing fast and loose with the truth and injecting spin, but if the USDA actually said what they’re accused of saying, the story is materially correct. And if they didn’t say it, then the reporter isn’t guilty of spin, he’s guilty of LYING.

  11. Hey I’m trying to be delicate 🙂 Actually I “smelled” spin, unless and until I can actually find support for all of the reporter’s assertions (most notably the paragraph about big meat business’ “fears”) I am going to reserve judgement. Gloweringly.

  12. I tried snooping around for something like a transcript or official release or something to see the exact words used but couldn’t find anything. So I wonder if the AP report was working off an interview. So I’m open to the idea that there’s more at work, as well. Like I say, though, this dovetails with my expectations, which I guess makes it more believable in my eyes.

  13. Also, see this on the 2007 Farm Bill from IndyBay:

    Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has

  14. Interesting that the text of the sample protest letter equates “bans on genetically engineered crops and organisms” with “food safety laws” – how do they figure? Californians.

    This can be seen a number of ways. On the one hand, citizens are not food safety experts, and are in fact easily panicked, so the USDA and FDA (and the CDC) should assert their authority in these matters, thereby protecting the public from unjustified panick and also businesses from malicious state legislation. Then again, states should have the right to allow or restrict the foodstuffs (as well as medicine and the like) that they allow to be trafficked in their midst.

    I would move past “how do we strike a balance” and inquire as to whether or not, in this day and age, there is even a balance to be struck.

  15. In practice the “states’ rights” angle here might be good or bad. In a lot of cases I’d much rather have California regulators looking after me than Fed “regulators” who have been bought and paid for by Big Ag. But that sort of case-by-case assessment is hardly the stuff of manageable policy, is it?

  16. Stickyboy – no idea what’s up with WP, but it flagged several of those comments as spam. I set them as not spam and deleted the duplicates. Sorry about that.

  17. I’m not sanguine about either option; the “bought and paid for” status of federal regulatory bodies can be as fleeting as the terms of the congressmen/women doing the selling out, and I’ve seen entrenched bureaucracy at the state level “good ole boy” entire commerce sectors for decades (in TX, “good ole boy” is a verb).

    Citizens also have about the same options for punitive response to a screwup on the part of either institution, with almost certainly better government response speed when dealing with the state level than the federal, although this rarely translates into effective improvement. At least when dealing with a business that has something to lose by the bad PR they have a fighting chance of winning damages, which means that the same dynamic that makes the business weak to state silliness (e.g., “GE food is dangerous”) and require federal protection is the only way a wronged citizen can perhaps recover damages.

    We’d all agree that a proven meatborne vCJD case originating from government-approved livestock would results in little if any judicial relief for the afflicted any time soon, even if it ended a couple of political careers. If the citizen were dealing with a company rather than a government, the same vCJD case would spawn class-action lawsuits that “uncover” perhaps faulty testing supplies (since they were, after all, conducted outside the auspices of the USDA) allowing the company to pass the buck to a foreign biotech firm, or lax procedures that would engender sacrificial firings. Likely as not the company would stick to their guns that all tests were properly conducted, that their meat is safe, and then attack the diagnosis or the victim’s eating habits (do I watch too much Law And Order?). Either way, without considerable cash reserves to launch a proper suit, they’re utterly screwed.

  18. This is a great way to celebrate a century of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which is actually 101 this year).