Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Banning "downer" cattle? Allowing tests for BSE?

In February, after school children received shipments of meat from the plant that abused "downer" cattle, the Washington Post headline read, "USDA rejects 'downer' cow ban." At the time, U.S. Food Policy wrote:
Why would the meat industry even want a headline that says, "USDA Rejects 'Downer' Cow Ban"? Surely, only a small fraction of cows are healthy enough to walk through the plant gates but later collapse. In the midst of a crisis of public confidence in USDA oversight of the meat supply, this headline will confirm to most readers that USDA lacks the power and willpower to protect us and our schoolchildren. The headline strikes the same odd chord that readers will recall from earlier articles about USDA's action to prevent Creekstone Beef from voluntarily testing its own meat for the pathogen that causes "mad cow disease."
Today, the Post headline reads, "USDA to ban 'downer' beef." That's much better on "downer" cattle, but hold the celebration for a minute.

USDA is still pulling out the stops to press its legal case that Creekstone Beef should be forbidden to test Creekstone's own beef, voluntarily, and at the company's own expense. Sam Hannanel wrote May 9 for the Associated Press (via Modesto Bee):

The Bush administration on Friday urged a federal appeals court to stop meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease, but a skeptical judge questioned whether the government has that authority....

The agency argues that more widespread testing does not guarantee food safety and could result in a false positive that scares consumers. "They want to create false assurances," Justice Department attorney Eric Flesig-Greene told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Economists tend to believe that an economic actor's actions reveal a lot about his or her preferences and beliefs. Here's what I think USDA's actions imply about the beliefs of senior department decision-makers.

They don't believe there is a large risk of a BSE epidemic, with widespread cases of the human variant of mad cow disease (the officials are surely decent enough that they would, in that case, support more mandatory testing).

On the other hand, they don't believe the risk of finding a case of BSE is near zero either (the officials are clever enough that they would, in that case, allow Creekstone Beef to pursue its own quirky and pointless food safety testing strategy, and would prepare themselves for making sure true false positives were recognized as false).

Instead, the officials' actions seem to me most consistent with believing there are a handful of real cases of BSE out there in the beef cattle population, and that these cases will naturally die out without infecting new cattle over the next several years. Of course, if this were true, a handful of people would be subjected to risk of the deadly disease years after eating a cow whose infection was never discovered.


Janet said...

Remind me again: Whose interests is the USDA supposed to represent?

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