Friday, November 19, 2004

Mad cow; insane Dept. of Agriculture

The discovery of a potential case of mad cow disease in the United States should come as no surprise. The surprise is that it has been discovered this soon given the testing regime. Last year when another case was discovered, the USDA promised to double testing from about 20,000 cattle per year to about 40,000. That sounds good until you realize that there are an estimated 36 million slaughtered each year. So, we went from testing 1 in about 1800 cattle slaughtered to 1 in 900 or about one-tenth of 1 percent.

Contrast this with the Japanese system which requires 100 percent testing. The New York Times is reporting that the USDA is promising to test up to 268,000 cattle by the end of next year. It's not clear whether that's the total for this year and next or whether it's an annual figure. Taking it generously as an annual figure, you get all the way up to seven-tenths of one percent of slaughtered cattle being tested. And, to top it off, the testing is voluntary.

Why is the USDA putting on the blinders? Because the American cattle industry wants it to. If the agency went to 100 percent testing, it would surely reveal that mad cow is much more widespread, and that would mean we'd have to take some serious (and costly) steps to do something about it. It would also put a huge dent in the consumption of beef for a while.

Of course, all this will come out in time, and it will be a disaster when it does. But, as usual, USDA will wait until the problem grows much bigger before doing anything about it. Now, ask yourself: Who's more insane, the cows or the USDA?

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