Mad Cows Come Home
Why the disease scare may be great for the U.S. food industry and consumers.
Just the name "mad cow" disease is enough to inspire alarm, and its scientific appellation isn't any more comforting: bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Humans who eat infected meat may suffer from a form of the illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain-wasting affliction that, as David Plotz memorably put it several years ago, "murders by driving its young victims insane, then melting their brains." The illness is horrible, made even creepier by its long incubation (five years or more) and the lack of any cure. It was all but inevitable that the discovery just before Christmas of a single cow in my home state, Washington, that tested positive for BSE would send the nation into panic mode.
But as a few journalists have pointed out, the U.S. is hardly on the verge of an epidemic, and the odds are good that over the next 10 years hardly a soul will contract the cow-transmitted form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Even in Great Britain, where thousands of BSE-affected cattle entered the food supply eight years ago, only about 140 people have died from it. That's too many, of course, but it's a minuscule number compared to flu-related deaths (3,000 to 4,000 a year in England) or fatal auto accidents (about 3,500 annually). Here in the United States, food-borne illnesses of all types cause 5,000 deaths a year—a number not likely to change a whit due to mad cow.
In fact, mad cow disease in the United States may be the best thing to happen to the U.S. food industry and consumers since the invention of refrigeration. It's entirely possible that as a result of the current panic, in 10 years we'll not only look back and find next to no cases of mad cow in humans, but also look around at a better, healthier food supply. Perhaps we'll even have whittled down that appalling deaths-from-bad-food figure. (The obesity epidemic will still be taking a dire heath toll, but that's another story.) Here's why:
The cattle industry will clean up its act. That's already happening. On Dec. 31 Ann Veneman, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced sharp restrictions on the use of "downer" cows in the food supply. Downers are cows too weak or sick to stand up as they're taken to the slaughterhouse. They're thought to have the highest chance of suffering from BSE, which in its late stages causes paralysis. (It was a downer in Washington state that started the current mad-cow offensive.) Downers may also have a range of other physical or neurological problems. Not only are these animals (often incapacitated by an infectious disease) very likely to be unhealthy as food, but it also seems especially inhumane to drag paralyzed animals to slaughter.
Food-safety advocates and animal-rights groups have long sought restrictions on the use of downers, but as recently as November the beef industry—with the Bush administration's support—fought off legislation in Congress that would have banned their slaughter. Yet on Dec. 31 there was Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, saying, "Times do change and you have to factor in new ideas and new things that are happening. We're going to stand behind our government in this." A foxhole conversion, if ever there was one.
And that's just a start. Look as well for restrictions on the use of "advanced recovery" machines, which mechanically strip a cattle carcass of every last shred of usable meat. In the process, they can also scrape away residual brain or spinal cord tissue—tissue most likely to harbor BSE. Having seen billions of dollars in annual business teeter on the precipice, the cattle industry will quit chasing nickels if it means incurring a health risk.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America and assistant secretary of agriculture for Jimmy Carter, hopes that the USDA will ask Congress for "mandatory recall" authority, too. With that, Veneman could have forced meatpackers to track down and bring back meat that may have come from the Washington cow. Instead, she had to negotiate for a recall, while the tainted meat continued on its way to the market.
We'll have better testing. Even allowing for the relatively young age of most U.S. cattle (young cows can't contract BSE and therefore don't need testing), testing for mad cow in this country is woefully limited. The Japanese test every cow. The Europeans test one in four. We test, at best, one in 10,000—and not very rigorously. That Washington cow, for instance, was tested and then sent into the food-supply chain! The USDA hasn't made any definitive plans to improve testing, but politicians such as Washington Gov. Gary Locke—not to mention consumers and consumer groups—are clamoring for it. Tests for BSE are cheap and fast, and there's no reason they should not target at least at one in 10 cows.
Cattle-tracking technology will improve. A few days after the news that mad cow had been discovered, a spitting match over the affected cow's origin broke out between the United States and Canada. Apparently, the cow in question had been imported from Alberta, the site of a mad-cow discovery in May 2003. But it wasn't 100 percent clear where the cow had come from, in part because "tracking" consists of a metal tag hung on an animal's ear. Those tags can fall off, and even when they don't, the paperwork involved in keeping tabs on the animal is enormous. That matters, because a precise determination of a cow's origin can make quarantine procedures more effective and speed the removal of potentially tainted meat from the consumer pipeline.
The technology exists today to replace the numbered metal tags with electronic data-carrying implants that can keep a detailed record of a cow's breeding history and its ports of call in the supply chain. That way, when a cow is detected with mad cow—or any other serious problem, such as e. coli—its siblings and feeder-lot mates can be found quickly. But this isn't just a bad-news tool. David Warren, the CEO of eMerge Interactive, a company that makes electronic cattle tags, points out that the tags also allow cattle ranchers to pinpoint which lines of cattle are profitable and which are not. And it's not expensive technology: The bill comes to about $2.50 per tag, plus some hardware and software costs that amortize out.
The USDA will remain a public agency. As Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, complained in a Jan. 2 op-ed in the New York Times, the USDA is hardly a model of an independent oversight body. But as recently as this past summer, the Bush administration was talking about privatizing large parts of the USDA's operations, as well as setting up a system in which meat-packing plants would paythe USDA to inspect them. Both ideas would surely only further erode the USDA's already too-lax supervision of the beef industry. Both proposals, fortunately, will be dead in the water for years.
Beef prices will stabilize. U.S. cattle ranchers were having their best year in a decade in 2003. Prices were up, supplies were tight (in part due to restrictions on Canadian imports), and consumers enamored with the Atkins diet were scarfing down T-bones. The week after BSE was found in the United States, beef prices plummeted. But there already are signs they are recovering. Buyers at a late-December cattle auction in Oregon, for instance, found that the "bargains" they sought weren't there: Cattle were selling close to their pre-mad-cow levels. It seems reasonable to assume that consumers will enjoy lower beef prices for much of 2004. But they won't be so low as to cripple cattle growers.
Past improvements in food safety usually have followed a catastrophe, such as the 1993 e. coli epidemic that killed three children and sickened hundreds more after they ate tainted beef in hamburgers. In the wake of that tragedy, hamburger chains improved cooking techniques and hamburger producers faced greater inspection scrutiny. In the case of mad cow, it may well be that consumers will see the benefits of tougher standards without the pain of deaths or illnesses. So here's to a rare chunk of tenderloin, which I plan to have for dinner tonight.
Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for the Economist.
Photograph of cow on Slate's home page by Corbis.