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Interview with author Sheldon Rampton
Mad Cow USA

January 9, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

WHEN A single cow with mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state last month, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) lost no time at all. NCBA lobbyists were on the phone to members of Congress--at their home numbers, because they had left Washington for the holidays.

The association paid for teams of experts in all 50 states to feed news media reassuring words about the safety of U.S. beef. In short, a massive campaign not to protect U.S. consumers, but U.S. beef industry profits.

The cattle barons of the NCBA insist that beef is safe, that the cow in Washington is an isolated case, that Canada is to blame anyway and that the system is working just as it should. But the truth is that the system is working as it always has--to protect their profits above all else.

For years, the beef industry ignored all the warnings of scientists and health organizations, instead spending millions to buy political influence and to staff regulatory agencies with cattle industry loyalists. No less than Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is a former NCBA lobbyist.

Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who first identified mad cow disease, met with Veneman almost two months ago--a meeting he had sought ever since Canada discovered an infected cow last May. "I went to tell her that what happened in Canada was going to happen in the United States," Dr. Prusiner told the New York Times. "I told her it was just a matter of time."

The government had been "willfully blind to the threat," he told Veneman, and with more testing, mad cow disease--also known by its scientific name bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--would certainly turn up in the U.S. Prusiner couldn't have known it would happen only weeks later.

Now the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) has introduced new guidelines that it says will ensure that the crisis is over. But don't believe the hype.

SHELDON RAMPTON is the editor of the muckraking newsletter PR Watch and co-author with John Stauber of Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? He spoke with Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about the ongoing struggle to expose the beef industry's careless--and deadly--attitude towards food safety.

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THE BUSH administration wants to blame the existence of mad cow disease in the U.S. on Canada. Does this make sense?

IT'S A frivolous argument because the U.S. and Canadian cattle populations aren't tightly sealed off from one another.

Last year, when the first case of mad cow was discovered in Canada, the U.S. stopped accepting imports of Canadian cattle. But in the two years leading up to that, the U.S. had imported about 3 million cattle from Canada.

For all practical purposes, the U.S. and Canadian–and for that matter, Mexican–cattle herds are all one big herd that move back and forth freely. So for the purposes of reassurance, to say that this cow came from Canada is no different from saying that a cow that was found in Colorado actually came from Wisconsin.

The Bush administration brought up this argument largely as a way of trying to minimize public concern, which continues to be the primary focus of just about everything they say. Public health and animal health come after that in their calculus of what's important.

WHAT DO you think of the USDA's new measures to "safeguard" the U.S. beef supply?

MY IMPRESSION of them is skepticism, and it's not based on what I've read in the papers. It's just based on experience.

Ever since I first began watching this as an issue about 10 years ago, there has been a standard response of the USDA and the beef industry whenever there's any news that raises a concern about this disease.

They immediately do two things. One, they rush out with some experts to declare that there's no problem. And simultaneously, they announce that they've taken new steps to fix it–which are obviously contradictory things.

Every time in the past when they've done that, once you take a look at the measures they've taken to fix it, it turns out that those measures aren't as protective as they sound in the announcement. For example, right after England announced that they had concluded that people were dying from eating contaminated beef, the response of the U.S. beef industry was to announce what they called a "voluntary ban" on the feeding of rendered slaughterhouse waste from cows to other cows.

What is a "voluntary ban?" It's a contradiction in terms, and when we and other people looked into it, it turned out that the so-called voluntary ban was just a piece of paper–that they were basically stating that they had stopped the practice, but they hadn't really.

Nearly two years go by, and finally in 1997, the USDA announces new regulations saying that they're going to ban the offending feeding practices. That sounds very good–they called it a "mammalian ban," meaning that it sounded like they weren't going to allow any feeding of rendered slaughterhouse waste to mammals if it comes from mammals.

In practice, though, they did things such as exempt pigs from their definition of mammal. And of course, they allowed the continued feeding of this waste to chickens.

What's more, even cow-to-cow feeding is still going on. For example, freeze-dried bovine blood remains perfectly legal to use as a feed supplement for dairy calves. They take the blood shed by cows during slaughter, dry it up and turn it into a protein supplement to feed to dairy calves, so it's still a cannibalistic feeding practice in cows.

If you look at the actual compliance with the regulations established by the FDA in 1997, you find that their own rather limited monitoring found that they were only getting compliance at 70 percent of the rendering plants. And all they were doing when they didn't find compliance was to send a letter saying, "You aren't complying."

So what sounded on paper like they were really taking measures turned out to be a bunch of half-measures, with loopholes that were only weakly implemented and enforced.

It sounds great if they really are going to stop slaughtering "downer" cows and turning them into meat for the human table. But I rather suspect that what's going to happen in practice is an effort by industry to slaughter these cows anyway, and a tendency by government to look the other way when it happens.

Because there's money to be made–and whenever there's money to be made, there are people who tend to take that as a motivation to cut corners.

THE DISCOVERY of one infected cow in the U.S. has cost the beef industry billions in exports, yet the testing of all cattle destined for human consumption would cost just a few pennies per pound. Why has the industry resisted this measure?

I DON'T think it's the cost of the testing that they're concerned about. I think they have not wanted to find the disease here, and that's why they've done limited sampling instead of comprehensive surveillance that you see in Europe and Japan and other parts of the world.

As long as they could say, "We don't have the disease here," they could get away with these half-measures at rendering plants, and they didn't have to deal with other countries refusing imports of U.S. beef that could claim to be free of mad cow. Now all of a sudden they're finding that's harder to do–and now I suspect that they're going to have to do more testing than they're currently willing to do.

But it's really disappointing that Veneman said they're not going to test every animal. To me, that's really the gold standard of whether they're serious about finding out what the prevalence of the disease is here in the U.S.

When Japan went to testing every animal, they went through the same experience. Initially, they said, "We don't have the disease here," and then they discovered one case, and they said, "It's just one case." Then when they started to do widespread testing, they found they had a number of cases. I suspect that's what will happen here.

I think they're still hoping that they can get away with saying that this is just one case, and it came from Canada, and we've slaughtered all the animals from that herd that came from Canada, so we caught it, weren't we lucky, there wasn't really a problem. I don't think they're going to get away with it, because there are too many countries that import U.S. beef which are going to find that unsatisfactory–and refuse U.S. imports unless something more substantial is done.

Some of the reasons that these countries are going to do this aren't directly connected to the meat. Some of it will have to do with safety, but some of it will have to do with the fact that a lot of countries aren't very happy with the U.S. right now–for reasons having to do with Iraq, or U.S. policy on global warming.

There's a sort of moral capital in the universe that the U.S. has been squandering left and right, and the rest of the world right now isn't terribly inclined to give the U.S. the benefit of doubt on things. And I think that's going to come back in interesting ways to haunt us on mad cow disease.

THIS SOUNDS like a familiar story. Upton Sinclair exposed the meat industry 100 years ago with his book The Jungle, but the food corporations are still flouting food safety regulations–just as business gets around regulations regarding workplace safety, for instance. What will it take to get real change?

THERE HAS been change. The situation in terms of workplace deaths, for example, isn't as bad now as it was in the 1920s. And that happened because of the union movement and a number of social movements that put pressure on institutions.

But what you see happening with the Bush administration–and even before–is that the minute public pressure lets up, the pressure from industry mounts and begins to roll back the protections that people start to take for granted.

I think the main thing is to continue to scrutinize, to be skeptical of what you hear from the government, to look at the small print and to put pressure on them. There's the old adage that power concedes nothing without a struggle, and I think that's as true today as it was back when it was first said.

Sometimes, there's a temptation to look at all the ways we're not winning right now–at how corporations and powerful institutions are disempowering individuals–and to feel frustrated. But the truth is that we do have a legacy that's been built on the shoulders of past popular struggles, which has produced protections for the public.

And I think we need to keep pushing for those and have a clear vision of what kind of world we want to live in. We've made progress that way in the past, and I think we can do that in the future.

Mad Cow U.S.A. is currently out of print, but it is available in full on the Web at Sheldon Rampton's latest book--also with John Stauber--is Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq.

When food is a health hazard

FROM START to finish, the beef industry is built around the feeding practices that scientists believe cause mad cow disease. Every year, billions of pounds of rendered fat, blood and bone from pigs and poultry are fed to cattle, which are rendered and fed back to pigs and poultry, creating a loop that can spread and magnify mad cow disease.

Automated machines used for clawing meat out of cattle carcasses can latch onto bits of the spinal column and nervous system tissue, drawing it into the human food chain. Even thorough cooking doesn't make BSE-infected meat safe for consumption.

But testing in the U.S. remains woefully inadequate. Even under its new guidelines, the federal government plans to test only about 40,000 of the 35 million cattle it will slaughter. By contrast, Japan tests every cow destined for human consumption.

Yet mad cow disease poses only one hazard to the safety of meat. Take it from Bill Lehman, an inspector who turned whistleblower in the late 1990s.

Lehman rejected "up to 2.3 million pounds of contaminated or mislabeled imports annually" because of "pus-filled abscesses, sticky layers of bacteria leaving a stench, obvious fecal contamination, stains, metal shavings, blood, bruises, hair, hide, chemical residues, salmonella, added substances, and advanced disease symptoms."

But the meat industry constantly tries to limit the inspection process. As a consequence, Lehman said, "I merely walk to the back of the truck. That's all I'm allowed to do. Whether there's boxed meat or carcasses in the truck, I can't touch the boxes. I can't open the boxes. I can't use a flashlight. I can't walk into the truck. I can only look at what's visible in the back of the trailer."

After one inspection, he told a reporter, "I've just inspected over 80,000 pounds of meat...on two trucks. I wasn't running or hurrying either...I just stamped on their paperwork 'USDA Inspected and Passed' in 45 seconds."

Then there are the workers with "the most dangerous job in America"--the meatpackers who turn cows into beef. About one in every three meatpackers is injured on the job every year.

How Washington let this happen

THE MEAT industry pays a price for endangering U.S. consumers with tainted beef. But it's a bargain price--about $41 million spent on politicians during the 1990s, to be precise.

Republicans received the lion's share of that money, but the meat business also bought some high-powered Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), both of whom come from big cattle states.

The Bush administration is guilty of some outrageous maneuvers to weaken consumer and environmental safeguards. But the Clinton administration certainly deserves some of the blame for the new mad cow crisis. It was Clinton-era officials, for example, who implemented the "voluntary feed ban" that was supposed to--but didn't--stop rendered cow parts from being fed back to cows.

The same day that the Bush administration announced new measures to address the mad cow crisis, it also announced a new ban on the dietary supplement ephedra--after a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles died from taking it early last year. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Clinton had proposed a warning label on supplements containing ephedra. But it backed off after the industry complained that ephedra's links to strokes and heart problems were "unconvincing."

Bush also took a lot of heat for refusing to implement stricter standards ordered by Clinton on arsenic in drinking water. But why did Clinton wait to order the new standard until the last days of his presidency?

What's more, the Environmental Protection Agency had proposed a five-parts-per-billion standard for arsenic, but the Clinton administration ultimately settled on 10 parts per billion--because of "industry pressure," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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