As we end the year, the news media are keeping us fixated on an otherwise indistinct 6-year-old Holstein who was hauled off to slaughter about three weeks ago. The cow was butchered at a Washington state processing plant, despite being visibly ill at the time of her demise, and now represents the first confirmed U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
Complications from calving led the cow's owner to "retire" her from his dairy herd, and she was quickly transformed into ground beef and other products that were shuttled into the retail food supply in at least eight states and Guam.
Where the story gets weird -- and even scary -- is in the bureaucratic detail. Even though the cow was so ill as to be "nonambulatory" at the slaughterhouse, U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations allowed the cow to be butchered and her meat dispersed into the food supply. The federal regulations required that the cow be tested, however, and the after-the-fact test results made the diagnosis of BSE.
This sequence of events defies any kind of logic that would take the consumer's best interests into consideration.
Last week, USDA inspectors, wholesalers and retailers scrambled to recall the cow's meat from supermarkets and lockers. Officials conceded that some meat already had reached consumers, and it seems unlikely that all the meat from that cow can be recovered. Complicating the search for both the cow's origins and her meat's final destination is the lack of a comprehensive tracking system, such as the one the British have implemented.
As it turns out, the slaughter of "nonambulatory" cattle has been a controversial issue, one that the livestock interests have successfully squelched. Now, through the inquiry into a single, hapless cow, the regulatory network that may or may not be working for consumers is coming into focus.
It seems obvious from the revelations about this cow that the long-term well-being of consumers would be best served by increased scrutiny of food production and regulatory processes. Despite the public's recent fears of a tainted food supply, however, I suspect that industry resistance to greater regulation not only will prevail in the immediate future but will be aided in the long term by the economic losses in the beef industry.
The early signs of this seem clear. Rather than forthrightly addressing substantive issues of food safety, the White House quickly proclaimed that President Bush was happily eating beef at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. During the weekend, USDA officials jetted off to Japan to reassure our trading partner that imports of American beef should not be banned.
I'd be a much happier consumer if the USDA expended the same energy in addressing the slaughter issues that have come to light recently. This is not to say that I am unsympathetic to the plight of the beef industry, which stands to lose billions of dollars. However, sensible regulation very well may have avoided this situation.
We also need to be reminded that the potential health risk to consumers is daunting. People who are infected with BSE develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain-wasting illness that has no cure. The 143 deaths in Britain following the BSE outbreak there should underscore the need for oversight.
Given the stakes, those who would argue that the consumer is better served by the lower prices that come with less regulation have a narrow view of the public interest.