Tuesday's announcement of the fourth case of mad cow disease discovered in the U.S. has sparked much debate about current testing and other preventive food safety measures.
According to the USDA, the California dairy cow had been "euthanized after it developed lameness and became recumbent," which is the required step with any downer cow over 30 months old that is too sick or tired to stand – due to a federal law implemented in 2009.
The ban on slaughtering downer cattle (which are at greater risk for mad cow disease) resulted from an undercover video released by the Humane Society of the United States showing slaughterhouse workers abusing and dragging downer cows to force them to slaughter.
A California law that aimed to expand the 2009 ban to include downer calves (younger than 30 months) and other livestock was unfortunately overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
While U.S. health officials say there is no risk to the food supply (pointing out that the cow had not been intended for human consumption), some consumer advocates suggest that testing efforts now in practice are inadequate.
The Christian Science Monitor reports:
“First, the USDA testing program for mad cow disease is way too small,” said Naomi Starkman of Consumers Union in a statement. “USDA only tests some 40,000 cows a year of the millions slaughtered annually. So we really don't know if this is an isolated unusual event or whether there are more cases in US beef.”
That means U.S. randomly tests one of every 10,000 cows, a drop in the bucket compared to Britain (which tests 70 percent of its beef) and Japan (100 percent).
What makes matters even more disconcerting is how the farm bill that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee this week failed to include a provision that would secure reliable funding for The National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which carries out the testing for mad cow disease.
Another unsettling fact is the continued use of cattle remains (including the riskiest parts of the cow such as the brain and spinal cord) as feed for pigs and chickens, whose litter is then fed back to cows – allowing for the potential spread of mad cow disease.
It would be nice if the USDA didn't dismiss these consumer concerns altogether as they have this week, given the lack of traceback capability along the supply chain and the constant difficulty for meat industry workers (and USDA whistleblowers alike) to speak out when they witness food safety threats.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.