Another Mad Cow… What a Downer

Hamburger The US Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns ate beef for lunch today before greeting the press with the news that a second case of mad cow disease had been confirmed.  This animal was born domestically, and not imported from a contaminated Canadian herd as the previous mad cow one was.

While I agree that there’s no evidence of wide-spread contamination of the beef supply, the Ag Secretary’s public statements don’t give evidence of a well functioning logical mind.  Not mad, maybe.  Just shallow and short-sighted.

Human health was not at risk, Johanns said to the press. Because, he reasoned, the animal was a “downer,” meaning it was unable to walk. Such animals are banned from the food supply.

Okay, the confirmed mad cow did not get served at McDonalds.

But what about the feed-lot-mates of our downer cow.  It seems reasonable that they could be infected but the disease had not yet progressed to the stage of making the animals unable to walk.  Hasn’t the US bowed to the cattle industry’s contention that testing of all beef would be too expensive and skipped the testing for animals healthy enough to walk through the slaughter yard on their own? Doesn’t this lack of testing leave open the question of whether the pen-mates of the mad cow are also diseased?

The shallow reassurances of Secretary Johanns aren’t likely to remain the spin for very long. Our scandal-loving media can be relied upon to come out of its stupor and ask questions about the health of other animals from the herd.

Moreover, the Ag Departments attempt to control information is likely to prove costly.  Right now, to avoid a negative public reaction, the Fed’s not telling where the sick cow came from.  Right.  So, instead of putting a geographic border around the problem, nervous people country-wide will stop eating beef. 

ABC news is airing a sound-bite from Johanns saying that you’re more likely to get hit by a car in the supermarket parking lot than to get mad cow disease.  Yes, statistically, that has been true in the past.  You’re also more likely to get hit by lightening than win the lottery.  There are all sorts of irrelevant fun facts out there. But, the statistics argument usually doesn’t work when the public gets whipped into a frenzy contemplating their own scatter-brained death.

I’m really unlikely to get mad cow, since I don’t eat red meat (we’ll talk about the color of bacon some other time).  I’m not worried for myself.  But, it there are farmers who are going to get hurt by the government’s attempt to control information.  And, there’s an ever-so-slight possibility that some consumers — intentionally kept ignorant by the government — may contract a terrible, incurable disease.

Complete disclosure and a comprehensive beef testing program is the right response to today’s news.  It’s the right thing to do for public health and public nerves.  I think it will prove the least economically expensive, too.

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