Inertia at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Japan and more than 50 other nations continue to ban American beef due to the unwillingness of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to test each animal slaughtered for mad cow disease. As one might expect, a growing number of proactive, independent, niche market cattle ranchers desperately want to maintain their Japanese customers and seek to test all of their animals. In fact, Creekstone Farms, which exports to Japan, spent $500,000 on testing facilities only to have USDA prohibit the purchase of the chemical kits necessary to conduct the testing. Creekstone is appealing this decision, but USDA hypocritically prohibits this initiative on the grounds that allowing the tests would imply that the products from companies that don't test all of their animals are less safe. Not surprisingly, the staunchest ally the USDA has in its opposition to universal testing is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the beef industry's trade association.

USDA claims that by testing less than 1% of the cattle slaughtered each year it is doing the testing deemed appropriate by science and asserts it has enacted reforms to protect against mad cow disease. Yet on-going revelations demonstrate inconsistent implementation of regulations and breaches of protocol that jeopardize human safety. For instance, an agency veterinarian and an attorney representing federal veterinarians recently charged that USDA officials pressure their veterinarians to sign documents that falsely certify food items are safe for export. Separately, in May, the agency acknowledged policy was broken when a cow who exhibited signs of a central nervous system disorder was not tested for mad cow disease. It has also come to light that USDA issued permits that led to the importation of banned Canadian beef products. Furthermore, the agency will not identify the companies that imported the banned items.

USDA, engaged in the conflicting tasks of promoting and regulating animal products, does more to appease industry than to ensure food safety and animal health. A May 23 Denver Post article noted the Bush Administration has appointed more than 100 top government officials who were once lobbyists, attorneys, or spokespeople for the industries they oversee, including more than a dozen high-ranking USDA officials who have ties to the meat industry. USDA should follow the lead of other countries and increase its diligence in protecting human health by reestablishing food safety as its highest priority and halt its preoccupation with protecting the image of the cattle industry.