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USDA, you're doin' a heckuva job
February 10, 2006 11:06 PM   Subscribe

US Meat Supply at Risk of Mad Cow Disease is one of the headlnes I missed last week week. Auditors can’t say whether meat plants followed mad-cow rules is another. Plus 'Downer Cows' Entering Meat Supply, USDA Inspector General Says | USDA slammed for letting high-risk downer cattle reach consumers | USDA Didn't Follow Procedures In '04 BSE Test | Agency Fought Retesting of Infected Cow | USDA feared beef test and, um... Confidence in U.S. called key to exports. [more inside]
posted by soyjoy (39 comments total)

 
All the links other than the last are to stories covering a single document, the audit report by the Office of the Inspector General. Here's the complete audit report in PDF form (6 MB)

(Also related, from January: Audit unmasks USDA cover-up: Senior officials stalled investigations of meat companies, stockyards | USDA blocks real probes, records fake ones)
posted by soyjoy at 11:07 PM on February 10, 2006


Recently, the US gov't tried to explain to the Japanese why they should import US beef again, despite the risk of mad cow disease, by saying that it was "less dangerous than driving a car".

Usually, I don't think of eating a hamburger as being anywhere close to as risky as putting myself in a ton of metal, strapping myself in with a belt to prevent being jettised to my death, with a self-inflating cushion to prevent massive head trauma, and a license in my wallet that certifies that I've completed textbook and practical training and passed a test which authorizes me to operate the vehicle.

From what I could tell in the Japanese press, I wasn't the only one.
posted by Bugbread at 11:19 PM on February 10, 2006


Cronyism strikes again. Mike Johanns was a miserable bureaucrat as mayor and governor; shirking both responsibilities in order to stuff his resume in anticipation of higher office. He doesn't know squat about Ag and has no significant qualifications beyond being an obedient Republican toadie.
posted by RavinDave at 11:26 PM on February 10, 2006


I gave up beef a long time ago because of stories like this.
posted by punishinglemur at 11:33 PM on February 10, 2006


Thanks so much for this one, soyjoy. I honestly don't understand how anyone can look at the evidence - "downer" cows *still* being slaughtered?!! - and not come to the obvious conclusion that the U.S. meat industry and its government overseers are doing everything they can to protect profit margins while minimizing public knowledge about a very real threat to the food supply.

Astonishing, yet somehow unsurprising. Strange how that works.
posted by mediareport at 11:35 PM on February 10, 2006


I also quit the cow when the first case showed up in the US.

Real danger = Eating a Wendy's burger while strapped to the ton of metal, driving down I-whatever at 70mph.
posted by Zendogg at 11:38 PM on February 10, 2006


Is nothing sacred safe? Beef may have disease. Chicken must be cooked until nearly dry because the growers grind up dead fowl and feed that to the live fowl.
Personally, I can't inspect chicken factories. Isn't the role of government to do for the people what the people are not able to do for themselves?
Why are we not protected from these appalling practices?
posted by Cranberry at 11:53 PM on February 10, 2006


Less dangerous than cars, 'eh? Does that, uh, mean we're going to start seeing 20,000 US Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease deaths per year from now on? Good time to invest in drool cups.
posted by Skwirl at 11:54 PM on February 10, 2006


The Mad Cowboy who turned Oprah (god I love Oprah!) off the cow has written some books that will keep ya awake nights. He implies, among other things, that we will see a spike in dementia cases in the next 10 years related to these daft heifers.
posted by Zendogg at 11:56 PM on February 10, 2006


we will see a spike in dementia cases in the next 10 years related to these daft heifers.

Yeah, that's the part that really makes me depressed - the possibility that relatively under-the-radar levels of mad cow in U.S. beef (under the radar in large part due to fewer inspections) will result in an increase in dementia that's almost impossible to distinguish from dementia caused by other factors. It's almost diabolical, how easy it is to mask any possible increase due to mad cow disease in and among the other possible causes of dementia in the population.

Perhaps the majority of Americans would accept that kind of increased risk in exchange for cheap meat, but I'd at least like to see a *little* public debate about those costs and benefits.
posted by mediareport at 12:14 AM on February 11, 2006


"Why are we not protected from these appalling practices?"

Because too many of you keep voting for shitbags like Dubya and his pals.
posted by stenseng at 12:27 AM on February 11, 2006


has no significant qualifications beyond being an obedient Republican toadie.

You name me one person appointed to any office by this current administration that has any other qualifications. Go ahead, just one. Show me one person they have appointed on merit that never carried water for the Republican party.
posted by any major dude at 12:32 AM on February 11, 2006


Does that, uh, mean we're going to start seeing 20,000 US Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease deaths per year from now on?

I believe the number of auto related deaths in the US is closer to 40k. Yeah that's right. Imagine if there were 40k deaths per year in the US at the hands of terrorists. What do you think we'd do about that? Probably more than nothing.
posted by any major dude at 12:34 AM on February 11, 2006


Because too many of you keep voting for shitbags like Dubya and his pals.

I'm not usually the sort to say this, but I don't think voting for the "other guy" would make much difference. You need a serious overhaul of an entire industry and regulatory regime.
posted by Jimbob at 12:48 AM on February 11, 2006


The cost to test a cow for Mad Cow is apparently $30 - $50 according to some quick googling. I remember when US beef was banned in Japan and the Japanese were asking the US to test every cow and were more than willing to pay the extra cost. But the US beef industry strongly refused, despite the fact that beef export to Japan was a billion dollar business prior to the ban. Even if testing every cow didn't make logical sense, at least it would have been worth it to humor the Japanese, especially since they would cover the cost. The incredibly strong refusal just didn't make any sense.
posted by Meridian at 12:59 AM on February 11, 2006


Yeah that's right. Imagine if there were 40k deaths per year in the US at the hands of terrorists. What do you think we'd do about that?

In my more cynical moments, I don't think it's death count or even potential deathcount from terrorists that drives the response. It's the economic impacts. As well as a small number of people dying (though a large number of deaths to a single very visible tragedy), some people lost a lot of money directly from the attacks and others lost more indirectly.

But in my less cynical moments, I believe that to the extent our government has acted to fight terrorism (and I say "to the extent" because it seems clear not all of its actions can be tied there), it's because of national pride and good ol' human dumbness about risk attribution. Car accidents will kill more, lack of health insurance will probably kill more, food poisoning will probably kill more... but each of those tragedies will be personal, small, unbroadcast, and nothing the electorate will be forced to think about. 9/11, if nothing else, was a national moment where we were all immersed in the same narrative about danger and tragedy, life and death, good and evil for a bit. The rest of the stories are personal.
posted by namespan at 1:01 AM on February 11, 2006


Meridian writes "The incredibly strong refusal just didn't make any sense."

Unless they feared testing fr the Japanese would lead to Americans insisting on testing too -- and then eating more chicken anyway, out of fear and because of the (slightly) higher price of beef due to testing.

Don't get me wrong: I think it was an incredibly short-sighted decision by the US beef industry. I stopped eating ground beef several years ago because of this -- I make an exception perhaps twice a year. Soyjoy's post will cause me to further limit my beef consumption, ground or otherwise.

(Although I also fear eating soy, now that's it's shown to correlate with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in some male mice. So no joy in soy for me.)
posted by orthogonality at 1:24 AM on February 11, 2006


...the Japanese were asking the US to test every cow and were more than willing to pay the extra cost. But the US beef industry strongly refused...

Not just the industry. The USDA forbade Creekstone Farms from testing their herds on their own dime.
posted by nikzhowz at 1:28 AM on February 11, 2006


im not part of the american beef industry, but if i was, id be pretty annoyed that you just linked their name to mad cow a bunch of times when the only cases of cow>human infection have come from UK beef. -cdc

and to be fair the the UK beef, i don't think you folks are getting it from your cows either. scrapie prions differ from BSE prions by a mere 7 amino acid loci. The human prion differs by 30 loci! This is that "species barrier" the scientists were talking about - shit that would allow the prion to even latch onto your proteins. Reading about it, it seems much more likely that its comming from rodents :(
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 1:30 AM on February 11, 2006


plus - all this hubris and you've got less than a 1 in 10 brazilian chance of getting it. Part of me wonders if Peta is behind this silliness, and part of me wonders if some people simply like being skerrrd.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 1:33 AM on February 11, 2006


As far as I know (which is only what I get from the news, and that isn't exactly a bastion of accuracy), all Japanese cows are tested for mad cow. Of course, we're talking many, many fewer cows, so that makes more fiscal sense.

It was amusing, however, to hear the initial justification (maybe still being used, I dunno) that "We don't need to test many cows, because we haven't found many mad cows". Well, yeah. Not testing will do that.

Also note, for fairness sake, that they didn't say that eating beef was equally dangerous to driving. They said "Less dangerous". So, technically, it could be 1 death per year, vs. 40,000 driving deaths per year. But you'd expect they would have picked a better comparison if that were the case. I mean, "Eating beef is less dangerous than racing across a mine field while being shot at" is also probably true, but they don't use that in comparisons either.
posted by Bugbread at 1:41 AM on February 11, 2006


nikzhowz - Not just the industry. The USDA forbade Creekstone Farms from testing their herds on their own dime.

Wow, that is incredibly disgusting. Really really bad. You could have an entire MeFi thread just on what that story implies.
posted by Meridian at 1:58 AM on February 11, 2006


Tryptophan-5ht: the only cases of cow>human infection have come from UK beef.

There have been several suspicious deaths in the US: Brain-disease deaths 'unusual, disturbing' (just the first story I could google up). I've heard similar claims on CBC's The Nature of Things, probably in Apocalypse Cow.

bugbread: all Japanese cows are tested for mad cow. Of course, we're talking many, many fewer cows, so that makes more fiscal sense.

That is some strange calculation you're doing... I mean, the cost per cow effects the cost per pound of beef.

Anyway, they are obviously hiding something, otherwise they would have quickly agreed to a compromise position. Like testing every fourth cow. I still eat beef, and ground beef occasionally...
posted by Chuckles at 2:57 AM on February 11, 2006


I wouldn't trust American beef. Their desire to avoid testing is too strong. They like making cows eat dead cows, and that spreads madcow. The feed industry is under-inspected, so regulations matter little.

Betcha those rich republosnots only eat imported beef, or their own, privately tested beef.

Look for ostrich steak as a great substitute for beef. Seriously, it's good, red meat. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was beef.
posted by Goofyy at 4:58 AM on February 11, 2006


The powers that be don't really seem to care about whether the US population is put at risk, or at least are willing to turn a blind eye due to the economics. They only seem to show interest when it might again affect economics by affecting exports of beef. Japan could be America's saviour here.
posted by caddis at 5:00 AM on February 11, 2006


The beef, I don't eat it ... haven't in a long time. Humans are in a race to the bottom: Now that we're finally starting to figure out how things work, let's see how shitty we can make it all. On a related note, the WTO has decided that Europeans have to eat Frankenfoods whether they like it or not.
posted by a_day_late at 5:14 AM on February 11, 2006


Eat Wild. Eat all the meat you want. Safely.
posted by stbalbach at 6:05 AM on February 11, 2006



Eat Wild. Eat all the meat you want. Safely.
posted by stbalbach at 6:05 AM PST on February 11 [!]


You must not be familiar with the deer and elk version, CWD.

But the fact is, the test that japan wanted only worked on older cows, mucher older than the 12-18 month old beef they were getting. So there was no chance of detecting anything, ithey might as well have had a priest drive out the demons, it would be much cheaper.
At the height of the british problem, they had ~700,000 infected cows and as a result there have been ~150 human cases. Someone pointed to car accidents, more americans get killed in car accidents each day, so there's many orders of magnitude difference in risk.
posted by 445supermag at 7:14 AM on February 11, 2006


Stop eating the flesh of animals, and the problem becomes a non-problem.

It *is* that easy.
posted by spincycle at 8:26 AM on February 11, 2006


Please check out this very interesting book, Brain Trust (disclaimer: my friend is the editor). The writer claims that Mad Cow/CJD was introduced into the food supply in a big way by a Nobel-prize winning scientist doing research on kuru (laughing sickness, a prion disease transmitted through cannibalism); that the massive increase (>20x) in Alzheimer's disease since the 50s is not just better testing or people living longer but CJD; and that the government knows this perfectly well.

I was pretty convinced. In particular, since the book came out there was an interesting case locally, where it turned out that a dozen or so people (hmmm, apparently it ended up being 17) who had eaten at a specific restaurant at a race track had died of "sporadic" CJD (and these weren't people who happened to have eaten there once, it included two members of the wait-staff and two people who ate there every week). This is more than the number of people who die of CJD every year in the entirely US!

There was an investigation called by the local Senator or Congressman which concluded (using what I believe to be completely bogus statistics) that this was a coincidence: see here. The two obvious problems are the following: they equate "attendance" at the race track with "unique visitors", or in other words, they are implyinging that an attendance of 4.5 million means that 4.5 million unique individuals visited the racetrack, or 1 in 60 Americans(!). Since racing has been a gradually dying sport since the 70s, you'd actually anticipate that nearly all the customers would be repeat business... I'd anticipate that there were perhaps only 0.5 million distinct people who actually visited that race track and quite likely a lot less than that.

The second obvious problem is that they are looking at the number of people who visited the racetrack -- instead of looking at the number of people who *ate* at the racetrack restaurant (since it appears that eating contaminated food is the only way to contract the disease, and since many of the individuals in question were regular patrons or food preparation workers who would have certainly eaten their own food).

To sum up, the government's own statistics show that the number of deaths associated with this one restaurant would require it to have had 0.5 million unique visitors every year... that's over 1,000 new visitors *a day* for 365 days a year.

As I said, this is not in the book, as it happened after the book came out; all the reasoning is mine. However, it is not reassuring that the first investigation I'm aware of to emerge appears to have been a crude cover-up.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:42 AM on February 11, 2006


But *not* that tasty.

/half-kidding
posted by papakwanz at 8:50 AM on February 11, 2006


Which way to the vegetarian section?

Also: Eating beef might rot my brain. Pork gives you trichinosis. What horrors await me if I bite down into some chicken breast?
posted by punishinglemur at 9:16 AM on February 11, 2006


OR ANY OTHER PART OF THE CHICKEN
posted by punishinglemur at 9:16 AM on February 11, 2006


Meatrix 2 sneak preview!
posted by homunculus at 10:08 AM on February 11, 2006


id be pretty annoyed that you just linked their name to mad cow a bunch of times

Take it up with the USDA's Inspector General. These are all facts drawn from that audit report.

They only seem to show interest when it might again affect economics by affecting exports of beef.

The disturbing thing is that this culture is so entrenched that they can't even straighten up and fly right when it very clearly does affect export economics. After a two-year timeout - plenty of time for the US to get its act together - Japan finally lifted the ban in December 2005, and then immediately reinstated it in January when they received shipments containing banned high-risk materials (spinal column parts). So even today the US is losing millions in export dollars because of this incompetence, and Japan is taking a hard look at the latest revelations before jumping back on this bandwagon.

And while yes, cattle is the highest-profile meat industry here, anyone who believes the agency's lackadaisical back-slapping attitude is confined to its oversight of beef... may already have holes in their brain.
posted by soyjoy at 10:14 AM on February 11, 2006


Thanks for this post, soyjoy.
posted by homunculus at 10:18 AM on February 11, 2006


I do enjoy the luxury of knowing where the cows I eat come from, and how they are treated and raised. As a result, there is a 350 lb. side, graded at super-prime, hanging in a meat locker, aged ten days, with at least 25 days more dry aging to occur, that will be split between me and 3 of my buddies.

You don't have to consume at the end of the factory food chain. Look around, you can find alternatives. Even if it's not safer for exposure to potential CJD it is certainly tastier, cheaper if you buy in bulk, and keeping those alternative paths open is also worth something to me.
posted by dglynn at 10:23 AM on February 11, 2006


the massive increase (>20x) in Alzheimer's disease since the 50s is not just better testing or people living longer but CJD

Do you have a cite for this (besides the book you mentioned)? I'd really like to dig deeper into this.

I worked at a nursing home taking care of some end-stage alzheimer's patients, and personally I find that to be about the most horrific possible way to go. Ugh.
posted by beth at 1:17 AM on February 12, 2006


By the way, this isn't worth a whole new thread or anything, but the Bush administration revealed Friday (which is why none of us, including me, heard about it) that in the probe of the spinal cord infraction that re-instituted Japan's US beef ban, they discovered that there was another form of unacceptable beef shipped at the same time, in an entirely different incident.
posted by soyjoy at 8:59 PM on February 21, 2006


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