A federal appeals court says the government can prohibit meat packers from testing their animals for mad cow disease.
Because the Agriculture Department tests only a small percentage of cows for the deadly disease, Kansas meatpacker Creekstone Farms Premium Beef wants to test all of its cows. The government says it can’t.
Here’s the wikipedia entry with some background. A undoubtedly partisan writeup is here. Consumer Reports writeup is here. Slashdot commentary is here. Now, it appears that there are legitimate reasons why blanket testing is unnecessary.
There is a two- to eight-year incubation period for mad cow disease. Because most cattle slaughtered in the United States are less than 24 months old, the most common mad cow disease test is unlikely to catch the disease, the appeals court noted. If the government does not control the tests, the USDA is worried about beef exporters unilaterally giving consumers false assurance.
This is probably why Japan only allows us to export beef cattle 20 months or younger, because we don’t test every head. So, from a purely scientific-economic standpoint, given that in the U.S. we slaughter beef before 24 months, what Creekstone is doing isn’t necessary – they’re increasing cost without providing much in the way of additional security. However, from a strictly macroeconomic standpoint, some countries don’t like U.S. beef because we don’t test each cow, so we can’t export our beef there.
This doesn’t make sense on about 1,000 different levels. Why would an administration that claims to be anti-big government interpret the body of regulatory law this way? Especially when they argue that other government agencies don’t have the authority to enforce testing in other industries? While the USDA certainly has an interest in maintaining good testing practices, it appears that Creekstone has a damn fine testing facility; they have the means to perform good testing. It’s not economically infeasible; Japan tests every head of beef for Mad Cow.
Ah, but large beef producers in the U.S. generally produce beef for domestic consumption, and keeping the price of beef low means that they can sell… more red meat to the average U.S. citizen… than they ought to be eating in a week anyway? And large beef producers don’t want to test every cow, because it’s expensive. But “we’re afraid that people might want it” seems to be a pretty crappy reason to apply political pressure to your smaller competitor, isn’t it?
I doubt this is over, rulings have gone both ways in this case. I expect Creekstone will keep at it. If the Democrats take the White House, I expect a massive overhaul of both the USDA and the EPA. While (again) there may not be legitimate science behind “testing every cow” as the optimal meat safety practice, this is the sort of change that could be made into a public relations victory. If I’m running Big Meat, USA, I’m making plans to do what Creekstone is doing now before it becomes The Law.