Mad Cow

Does this conflict of interest ring a bell?

USDA fails while trying to satisfy both packers, consumers over mad cow

March 16, 2004

Just how badly the U.S. Department of Agriculture bungled the case of one Canadian mad cow continues to come into focus through daily newspaper stories and, soon, the results of a government investigation.

What hasn't been made clear yet is the reason behind the bumbling. The Wall Street Journal took a crack at it, though, in a March 9 story that examined USDA's prohibition of private testing for mad cow disease.

"The USDA's qualms about private testing reflects the agency's sometimes conflicting mission to promote the $27 billion cattle industry at the same time it is supposed to protect consumers from bad meat," noted staff writer Scott Kilman.

"Indeed," he said, "the USDA is respecting the wishes of most big meatpackers, which want a tight lid on mad-cow testing. The USDA also has a vested interested in keeping testing out of the hands of private companies, since their work could challenge the Bush administration's position that mad cow isn't a problem in the U.S."

Ding, rings the political bell.

Conflicting mission. Ding. Respecting the wishes of big meatpackers. Ding! Vested interests. Ding! Ding! Challenge the Bush administration's position that mad cow isn't a problem. Ding! Ding! Ding

Many of the same points were made Feb. 17 in an 11-page letter from the House Committee on Government Reform to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman (

Authored by Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and Ranking Member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the letter asks Veneman to explain why nearly everything she and USDA have said about America's lone mad cow has been challenged by eyewitnesses at the Washington State plant that slaughtered the animal.

For example, the letter cites sworn statements from the plant's manager, a plant employee who killed the cow and the trucker who hauled it that the cow was not a "downer."

In fact, the letter states, eyewitnesses claim the cow not only walked onto the truck that hauled it to the slaughtering plant, the plant itself did not slaughter downer cows; and hadn't since Feb. 2003.

Moreover, the congressmen assert, USDA knew the plant didn't take downer cows and had in hand a Jan. 6, 2004 fax from the plant's manager that took exception to USDA's "downer" characterization. The fax, sent to USDA's Boulder, Colo., district office, was never made public even as Veneman continued her "out of an abundance of caution" road show with the beef-eating public.

Davis and Waxman stop short of the calling the Washington State mad cow discovery what it truly was: a nearly pure dumb accident. Despite that courtesy, the congressmen cut quickly to the chase. "If this (witness) information is true, it could have serious implications for both the adequacy of the national BSE surveillance system and the credibility of the USDA."

The letter ignited an official investigation by USDA's Office of Inspector General of what USDA and its political appointees knew about the mad cow and when they knew it. According to Davis and Waxman, it's likely USDA knew plenty and knew it early.

The revelations and subsequent investigation, however, have not slowed Veneman's 24/7 drive to deliver favors to USDA's packer buddies. She continues to lobby for opening the American border to cheap Canadian cattle imports despite the fact that both North America's known mad cows came from Canada.

Additionally, USDA's sudden love affair for a voluntary national animal identification program in the wake of the mad cow delivers exactly what Big Meat wants: no mandatory ID, no country-of-origin labeling and no possible chance of complete traceability up or down the food chain.

But the latest evidence USDA and Big Meat are linked at the brisket is the agency's warning that meatpackers who privately test for mad cow - with tests already used in Japan and the European Union - could face government wrath.

Why? Because more widespread testing increases the odds one or more mad cows might be found. And Veneman knows if that occurs, the next bell to be rung will be hers.

Hey, you partner up with packers you're gonna' get bloody.

- Alan Guebert's column appears on this page each Tuesday. His e-mail address is

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