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The Impact of Mad Cow Disease in California

To view a short video of the testimony, click here.

Testimony to the California Legislature on Mad Cow Disease
By Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst
Consumers Union
February 24, 2004

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to the Senate Agriculture, Health, and Government Oversight Committees regarding Mad Cow Disease and its potential impact on California consumers.
You may hear testimony today from the meat industry and government officials that Mad Cow Disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is not a problem in the US, that the risks of contracting the human form of the disease, new variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease is next to nil, and that the government’s handling of the recent recall of contaminated beef was an effective and efficient process in California. Consumers Union heartily disagrees with this assessment. Consumers in California were woefully unprotected by the California Department of Health Services during this recent Mad Cow scare.
In 2001, DHS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA, agreeing to keep secret the names of the retail outlets selling food subject to recalls. This agreement left consumers essentially in the dark, unable to protect themselves and their families from the possibility of ingesting contaminated meat. The USDA and DHS actions suggest that protecting the “proprietary information” of the meat industry is of greater importance than protecting public health and the safety of the food supply.
Last month, Consumer Reports magazine conducted a nationwide random sample survey of US adults regarding Mad Cow Disease. The survey revealed nearly universal awareness of the disease, and 95% of surveyed adults said they eat beef at least occasionally. One-third of adults we surveyed said they will eat less beef or give up beef altogether in response to the discovery of Mad Cow Disease in the US.
Potentially Contaminated Meat Sold to California Consumers
On Dec. 9, 2003, one cow in Washington State (along with 19 of its herdmates) was slaughtered and later tested positive for BSE. Over 10,000 pounds of this meat and bones, later recalled by the USDA, was shipped to retailers and restaurants in 7 states, including California. Because of DHS’s agreement with the USDA to keep secret the California retail outlets that received the meat, consumers were not informed that they might be buying and consuming tainted meat. The USDA shares information only with those states that agree not to publicly identify the locations where potentially tainted meat has been distributed and sold. Consumers Union has called on USDA Secretary Ann Veneman to immediately disclose the names and locations of all outlets that received any BSE-positive meat and to revoke agreements with states to keep this type of information confidential. Consumers Reports’ survey of Americans showed that 8 in 10 people agreed strongly that in the event of a recall, the USDA should make public the names of stores and restaurants that sold contaminated meat.
The USDA Should Have Mandatory Recall Authority on Meat
The USDA currently has only voluntary recall authority of contaminated meat. Amazingly, no regulatory agency has mandatory recall authority of contaminated meat, which is not the case for defective toys, car parts, and a host of other consumer products. The difference between a meat recall and a toy recall is striking—names of toy retailers are never kept confidential, even if it’s a voluntary recall for a hazardous toy. The USDA should seek the support of the Bush Administration and Congress to give them mandatory recall authority on contaminated meat. In the Consumer Reports nationwide survey, 90% agreed strongly that the USDA should have mandatory authority to recall contaminated meat from the food supply.
Widespread Testing Needed
While Consumers Union supports the USDA decision to exclude downers (cows that can’t walk to slaughter) from the human food supply, we are concerned that infected cattle that are asymptomatic could still enter US slaughter plants. Thousands of infected cattle in Europe were not downers and showed no outward signs of the disease. Therefore, widespread testing is essential and should include healthy animals over 20 months of age. Nearly 6 in 10 people in the Consumer Reports survey agreed strongly that the USDA should test all cows at slaughter for Mad Cow Disease.
Such widespread testing in the US would cost $20 to $25 for each carcass, or only pennies per pound of meat. The Consumer Reports survey indicates that 71% of adults who eat beef say they would pay more to support testing of cattle to ensure that they are free of Mad Cow Disease. Of these, 95% would be willing to pay 10 cents more per pound. Furthermore, 77% of beef eaters said they would pay more for beef certified as testing negative for Mad Cow Disease, if certified and non-certified varieties were available at the store.
Quick Test Needed
Consumers Union urges the use of the quick test for BSE, as is used in Europe and Japan, which provides results in a matter of hours instead of weeks. Because of the slow pace of the test currently employed in the US, there may well be consumers who purchased and ate meat from the BSE-positive animal in December because they were not informed or aware that the meat should be discarded. According to news accounts, by the time public health officials in California contacted restaurants and grocery stores regarding the recall, much of the meat had already been sold to consumers.
Ban on Feeding Animals to Animals
In 1997, the federal government erected a so-called firewall against the only recognized mode of BSE transmission: contaminated animal feed. The FDA decreed that ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats could no longer be fed protein or bone meal derived from other slaughtered cows, sheep or goats. But it has been reported that enforcement of the 1997 regulation has been lax. Furthermore, Consumers Union supports a much broader ban, such as in place in Europe, that prohibits using mammal animal protein in feed used for all livestock, including chickens and pigs. The World Health Organization advises that no BSE-positive animal should enter either the human food chain or the animal food chain, and we agree. About 8 in 10 people who participated in the Consumer Reports survey agreed strongly that the FDA should prohibit the feeding of animal remains to cows.
Consumers Union is also urging the USDA to tag all cattle at birth and track them to slaughter in one unified, national system. Additionally, we think the USDA should implement stronger precautions to ensure that there is no possibility that high-risk central nervous system tissue can enter the human food supply.
In summation, we condemn the policy of federal and state agencies entering into agreements with the meat industry to keep secret from consumers the names of vendors of potentially contaminated meat. It is the government’s business, first and foremost, to protect public health and the safety of the food supply before the profits of the meat industry.
Thank you.
Elisa Odabashian
Senior Policy Analyst
Consumers Union