When Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and the agribusiness insiders-turned-“regulators” who run George W. Bush’s Agriculture Department finally acknowledged that a case of mad cow disease had been found on a Washington State factory farm, the first order of business was to protect the agribusiness interests that have resisted basic food-safety measures for years. Veneman repeated the tired “nothing to fear” spin that British government aides peddled more than a decade ago, when they were downplaying the significance of the discovery there of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The British BSE outbreak led to devastation for that country’s farmers, the slaughter of millions of cows and the death of more than 130 people from the human form of the disease. By studying Britain’s experience, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration might well have been able to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the United States. Instead, they created what food-safety activist John Stauber describes as “a testing system that was designed not to find the disease.”
Despite Veneman’s public reassurances, she could not have known that the food supply was safe. That’s because the United States has failed to follow World Health Organization recommendations that sick cattle be tested for BSE before slaughter. Of 35 million head slaughtered for human consumption in the last fiscal year in the United States, only about 20,000 were tested–as compared with virtually all cattle in Japan and Europe. No wonder Britain’s Independent newspaper answered Veneman’s announcement with an editorial that read, “The temptation will be strong to greet the first case of BSE in the United States with self-satisfied gloating and a rousing chorus of ‘We told you so.’ There have been suspicions for years that the U.S. was not, and could not be, free from the cattle disease and that it was only lax enforcement and the willingness of some ranchers to slaughter and bury the occasional ‘mad cow’ on the quiet, that allowed the Americans to claim for so long that they were BSE-free.”
Stauber, co-author of the 1997 book Mad Cow USA, and other critics argue that the disease is more widespread in American herds than the USDA will admit. When this country’s trading partners banned imports of US beef, they put their faith in the critics’ analysis, and rightly so. Like other Bush Administration aides who are charged with protecting public health and safety, Veneman casts her lot with the industries she is supposed to regulate. It was never any secret that her primary “qualification” for the Agriculture Secretary’s job was her closeness to the potent agribusiness interests she served as a lobbyist and advocate of free trade and genetic modification of food.
In fairness, Veneman and her aides are not much worse than the crew that occupied top positions at the USDA under Bill Clinton. But the danger to the livelihoods of American farmers, and to the lives of American consumers, is now real enough that Veneman cannot be allowed to continue to peddle untruths. Congress must force the USDA to require the testing of all cattle before slaughter and to ban the feeding of slaughterhouse waste to animals that are eaten by human beings. Congress should also take the advice of the National Farmers Union and force the USDA to implement the NFU’s recommended mandatory standards for a product to receive the “made in the USA” label. It should move to break the monopolistic grip of agribusiness conglomerates like Tyson and Smithfield, which have imposed bottom-line values on beef processing. Finally, Congress should provide emergency relief to working farmers and ranchers, who face ruin because of the shameful failure of Ann Veneman and the USDA to maintain the safety–and, with it, the integrity–of the US food supply.