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USDA mishandling mad cow scare

A Times Editorial
Published July 6, 2005

Incompetence and deceit are a fatal mix for a government agency trying to win public trust. So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture botched a mad cow test on an infected animal and then delayed a search for the truth, it harmed its reputation and cast doubt on the safety of the American beef supply.

The country's second confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow) was initially found in November. A test of an animal too ill to walk was positive, which led the USDA to do further, though inconclusive, testing that too easily satisfied the agency no disease was present. Thankfully, the USDA inspector general sought a definitive test that confirmed the original finding, but by then seven months had passed.

What happened next only made the agency look more foolish. USDA Secretary Mike Johanns had to backtrack after initially joining the beef industry in criticizing the additional testing. And the agency delayed tracing the infected animal back to its herd because it had mishandled the original sample. As it turned out, the cow was born and raised in Texas, the first homegrown case of mad cow.

Johanns' early attempts to underplay the threat - saying there's "a better chance you'll get hurt crossing the street to get to the grocery store than by the beef you buy in the grocery store" - didn't help, either. While the human form of the fatal disease is rare, most Americans probably don't want to think they're taking any risk when they eat beef.

Johanns did announce that from now on the USDA will use the best test available to confirm an initial suspicion of mad cow. Unfortunately, he did nothing to assure consumers or potential foreign importers that the government is taking prevention seriously. Cattle get the disease through feed tainted with beef products. Although such feed is supposedly banned in this country, loopholes in the law could allow it to get through.

Before this news broke, the USDA was thinking about doing less mad cow screening. Instead, it should consider testing every slaughtered animal. While that would add some cost to beef (though less than 10 cents per pound), it would also give shoppers invaluable peace of mind.

Don't expect effective action soon, because USDA officials are still busy making excuses.Until the USDA gets its priorities straight, it will be of little help to consumers.

[Last modified July 6, 2005, 00:49:15]

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