Is the Government Protecting Us from Mad Cow?

There is an upside for the beef industry and industry-friendly federal food safety officials when people talk about pink slime. The burger extender, known as Lean Finely Textured Beef and made from beef fat scraps treated with ammonia to kill germs, was recently found to be posing as “normal” ground beef in the National School Lunch Program, fast food outlets and grocery stores.

There’s even an upside to the parade of medical journal articles linking red meat to coronary heart disease and cancer deaths. As long as people are taking about beef’s ick factor and link to progressive diseases, they’re not talking about the “third rail” of meat safety – mad cow disease.

It’s has been almost ten years since the U.S.’s first mad cow was discovered. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. beef exports evaporated within 24 hours when Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and 90 other countries banned US beef. The only reason the European Union didn’t ban U.S. beef was because it had already banned it for excessive use of growth hormones!

Now the U.S. is trying to win back Japan and China’s business, not fully restored since the first U.S. mad cow, in a trade version of the golden rule or “turnabout is fair play.” Specifically, the U.S. would agree to resume beef imports from other countries it has hitherto banned because of their mad cow risk (like Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands) in the hopes that the U.S.’s holdout trading partners will do the same, under the proposed rule.

“Quite simply, this proposed rule will show the United States is willing to talk the talk and walk the walk with regard to following international standards developed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE),” says National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Director of Legislative Affairs Kent Bacus. “It’s difficult for us to continue to demand that our trading partners comply with OIE standards when we don’t,” agrees Josh Winegarner, government relations director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

But R-CALF USA, a national cattle group often at odds with the government, is unhappy with the impending we’ll-eat-it-if-you-do quid pro quo. “Exposing U.S. consumers and U.S. livestock to a heightened risk of BSE [mad cow] introduction is irresponsible and contrary to pledges made by the Obama Administration during his campaign,” says the group.

Under OIE criteria, countries can have “negligible”, “controlled”, or “undetermined” mad cow risks based on the strength of their feed bans (feeding ruminants-to-ruminants like cows to cows), control of animal imports from risky countries and disease surveillance. OIE gave the U.S. a surprising “controlled risk” status despite three identified mad cows but the classification failed to pry open closed export markets as hoped. In fact, trade officials now say the U.S.’s controlled risk status costs it $3 billion a year in foreign sales and are seeking “negligible risk” status.

Negligible risk status under OIE guidelines requires “there has been no case of BSE or, if there has been a case, every case of BSE has been demonstrated to have been imported and has been completely destroyed” and that safety measure have been observed for at least seven years. If a mad cow case or cases were home grown, a country can still seek negligible risk status, according to OIE criteria, if it can demonstrate that all cattle “reared with the BSE cases” and consuming the same potentially contaminated feed or all cattle born from the same herd are “permanently identified, and their movements controlled, and, when slaughtered or at death, are completely destroyed.”

But even under those circumstances, the U.S. doesn’t make the cut because herd mates and feed mates of the first U.S. mad cow were not “identified”, “destroyed” or had their “movements controlled” as required. Eleven out of 25 head of cattle which authorities considered “likely to have eaten the same potentially infectious feed” as the Washington state cow were never found says the Associated Press. The fail rate was considerably higher with subsequent U.S. mad cows.

Mad cow disease belongs to a family of fatal brain diseases or “transmissible encephalopathies” and is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cows, scrapie in sheep and goats and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk. The diseases are thought to be transmitted by prions, invisible infectious particles that are not viruses or bacteria, but proteins.

Though prions are not technically “alive” because they lack a nucleus, they manage to reproduce. And though not technically “alive,” prions are almost impossible to “kill” or destroy because they are not inactivated by cooking, heat, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, benzene, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde or radiation. In fact, alcohol makes prions more transmissible because it binds them to metal like surgical instruments. Nor is it safe to just dump prion material in landfills because prions endure in soil for years and contaminate it.

Many have heard mad cow scare stories like: people with Alzheimer’s disease really have variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human version of mad cow disease; dogs, cats, pigs and fish are at risk; mad cow is spread by flies and mosquitoes; and mad cow is in milk or cosmetics. But prions are scary enough without urban legends to embellish them.

In humans, mad cow prions can cause a fatal neurological disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). But the government is quick to point out that humans get other forms of CJD that are not variant, including classic or sporadic – which occur spontaneously – and hereditary CJD – which is genetic. The government also says there are clinical and symptom differences between the two and that classic or sporadic CJD tends to strike the old (at an average age of 68) while vCJD tends to strike the young (the average age in Britain was 28). The problem is doctors don’t know which type of CJD a patient has without a brain biopsy, usually after death – just as veterinarians don’t know which cows have mad cow until after death.

On December 23, 2003, as the nation headed into Christmas, the USDA announced that a Holstein cow, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, on December 9 for human food, tested positive for mad cow disease. Ann Veneman, agriculture secretary and other USDA officials said the cow was discovered because she was a “downer” (unable to walk), indicating that the mad cow testing program worked since it screened downers as the main source of mad cow risk. But three workers who saw the animal said it walked just fine.

What followed, believe it or not, were congressional hearings, a federal criminal investigation, and a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation largely over whether or not the animal walked to slaughter. Because if the animal looked fine and walked under its own steam to slaughter, the entire federal mad cow testing program was misconceived and was letting millions of similar animals into the food supply. But if the slaughterhouse workers were lying, as the government hoped, and the animal was prodded or fork-lifted to slaughter, we might have a farming system that values money over living things and chews them up and spits them out, but at least the mad cow alert system works.

In testimony before Congress, USDA inspector general Phyllis K. Fong blamed “procedural errors” for the conflicting data about whether or not the animal walked, and said an employee “who alleged that the BSE-positive cow was ambulatory and healthy when it arrived at the facility described a different animal from the one that arrived in the same trailer and later tested BSE-positive.”

Unfortunately, that was not the only government discrepancy. There were also two very different versions of what happened to the meat from the Washington state cow. The government said in its final report that, “By December 27, 2003, FDA had located all potentially-infectious product rendered from the BSE-positive cow in Washington State. This product was disposed of in a landfill in accordance with Federal, State and local regulations.”  But the Los Angeles Times reported that despite “a voluntary recall aimed at recovering all 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered at the plant the day the Washington state cow was killed, some meat, which could have contained the Washington cow, was sold to restaurants in several Northern California counties.” And eaten, it turns out.

“In an interview, Alameda County health officer Dr. Anthony Iton recalled that in early January 2004, almost a month after the initial discovery, state health officials informed him that five restaurants in the Oakland area had received soup bones from the lot of tainted beef,” says the Times. “It immediately dispatched inspectors to the restaurants. But it was too late; soup made from the bones had been eaten. He was particularly disturbed to learn that none of the restaurant owners had received written notice of the recall and that federal inspectors did not visit them until 10 days after the recall.”

There was a second affront to food consumers besides letting the mad cow into the food supply and lying about it: bound by a USDA rule, the California Department of Health Services did not release the identities of stores or restaurants that purchased the meat, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. “Alameda and Santa Clara counties have been informed by the state that 11 local restaurants and a market purchased soup bones from the suspect lot, but they have also declined to identify which establishments purchased them,” said the Chronicle. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture insists the recall is precautionary and the meat poses no health risk.”

USDA spokesman Matthew Baun actually said it was the public’s responsibility to find out if any food they ate was at risk because the recall information was a trade secret! It is “up to consumers to check with their grocers, butchers or restaurants to find out if any of the recalled meat may have landed on their tables,” said Baun. “We are prohibited from releasing information that companies would consider proprietary. If you are concerned whether you may have purchased the product, you can call your retail store. They would know. . . . The only way to know for sure is to contact stores.”

Being “concerned” whether you “purchased” a product that could cause certain death struck the public as a glib understatement and four years later similar outrage over  government shielding of outlets selling meat from sick and abused cattle killed for the National School Lunch Program at Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, California prompted the USDA to reverse its policy protecting sellers, if not growers, of dangersous meat.

More Mad Cows and More Damage Control

Because of suspicions that feeding ruminants-to-ruminants and making cows cannibals could cause or spread mad cow disease, the U.S. had already banned the “protein recyling” practice in 1997. But one week after the Washington state mad cow surfaced, the USDA strengthened controls against mad cow disease by banning downer cattle in the food supply. It also banned “specified risk material“(SRM) from cows in the human food supply which included brains, skulls, eyes, spinal cords, tonsils, spleens, lymph tissues, and most of the vertebral column and small intestine, said to be at highest risk.

While scientific literature suggests that all cattle tissue, not just SRM, can harbor BSE infectivity, the government submits that “the presence of PrP [BSE] does not necessarily indicate the presence of BSE infectivity,”–meaning it may be in the meat but you may not catch it. Not too reassuring.

Japan and South Korea, two of the U.S.’s top-three beef importing nations were also not reassured by the new safety controls and withheld their business. And even as Mike Johanns, who succeeded Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary, tried to woo back Japan’s $1.5 billion a year business and South Korea’s $800 million, ((Art Hovey, “Cattlemen leery of reopening border”,  Lee Newspapers, February 10, 2005)) the unthinkable happened. A second mad cow was found in the U.S. and unlike the first cow, which had been born in Canada, the second cow had never left its Texas ranch. ((Betsy Blaney, “Cattle Herd Must Stay Put—Texas Ranch Where Diseased Cow Originated Is Quarantined,” Associated Press, July 1, 2005))

Worse, the 12-year-old “cream-colored Brahma cross” had been suspected of mad cow eleven months after the Washington cow, but the government did not tell the public until seven months later. It took the government three tests to identify the cow as positive, the last test unilaterally ordered by USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong over Johanns’ head. Asked why the United States’ best technology was missing mad cows Johanns conceded to reporters that prion distribution in a brain could make “it possible for one sample to test negative while another sample might test positive,” reported the Houston Chronicle. He also conceded that “the protocol we developed just a few years ago to conduct the tests, including the type of antibody used, might not be the best option today.”

And there were other disturbing facts. The cream-colored Brahma cross was sold at a livestock sale despite reports that she was a downer. (“The cow had always been excitable and had fallen while she was being loaded to go to the market, but that this was not unusual behavior for her,” the owner told government investigators.) The buyer sent the Brahma cross to the slaughterhouse four days later, but when the truck arrived at H&B Packing in Waco, she was dead and the truck turned around and transported her instead to Champion Pet Food, across town. And 350 of her possible herd mates and offspring were slaughtered “and possibly in the human food supply, even before the government inquiry began,” reported the Dallas Morning News. The cow’s owner was “relatively sure” he had not kept any offspring from the cow at the facility but “there were essentially no records maintained on the index farm,” reported the government.

Yet despite selling an animal that couldn’t walk for human food, maintaining no records and the business’ very murky ownership, according to the government, the identity of the ranch and its owner was protected. Even more outrageous, the ranch was cleared to resume selling meat within one month. Why should a livestock operation be penalized for producing food that could kill people?

Meanwhile, the trading relationship with Japan was roiling. One month after Japan agreed to start importing U.S. beef again in early 2005, SRM – specified risk material -was found in a U.S. beef shipment and the ban was immediately re-imposed. Oops. The USDA conducted a self-policing “export verification audit” to reassure Japan and it just made things worse. Nine slaughterhouses were found in noncompliance with SRM policies, according to the audit, and 29 downers went into a human food supply, 20 not tested for mad cow disease. The reason the cows were not tested for mad cow almost sounds like a joke. Government inspectors “did not believe that they had the authority” to go into the pens where the animals were held and get samples, reported the Houston Chronicle.

In answers to written questions from Japanese agriculture officials, Johanns said the 29 cattle were healthy until they arrived at the slaughterhouses, “where they suddenly became unable to walk because of injury or other factors,” reported Eiji Hirose of Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri – kind of like the Texas rancher’s “excitable” cow. Legally, downers could be slaughtered for food if they had suffered an acute injury after passing inspection. But Johanns did not give any “clear evidence for his conclusion,” wrote Hirose, and his overall comments appeared “to show the U.S. government does not take the issue seriously enough.” Japan’s agriculture minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, was similarly unappeased and told Johanns in a phone conversation, he was concerned about SRM and downer cows. Japan then sent a team of officials to inspect US slaughterhouses firsthand.

Can anyone guess what happened next? Even before Japanese inspectors arrived in the U.S., another mad cow was found. On March 13, 2006, a deep-red, crossbred beef cow from an Alabama ranch, estimated to be ten years old, became the third confirmed U.S. mad cow.

Like the Texas cow, the Alabama cow was a downer, initial tests failed to disclose her mad cow status and the identity of the Alabama ranch and its owner were protected. Also, like the Texas cow, she had recently given birth – she “had at her side a 2- to 3-week old red Charolais cross female calf” at the time of her death, said the government report – and her herd mates were not found or kept out of the food supply, though 37 farms were investigated.

The audit for Japan and mishandling of the first three mad cows are not the only red flags for U.S. beef safety. Lester Friedlander, DVM, a USDA federal meat inspector for 10 years, told United Press International in 2005 that a USDA official told him not to say anything if he ever discovered a case of mad cow disease, and that he knew of cows that had tested positive at private laboratories, but were ruled negative by the USDA.

And a 2008 Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) report to assess safe removal of specified risk material (SRM) in U.S. slaughterhouses found the same equipment was being used at one facility on animals at high risk of mad cow and other animals because, according to the supervisory public health veterinarian, “there were no ‘visible SRMs’ on the equipment,” as if prions could be seen. The government report also says FSIS Headquarters officials “believed the sanitizer spray was sufficient to address the problem,” as if prions aren’t practically indestructible. Maybe it was even alcohol.

Cluster Bombs

Even before the 2003 Washington state cow, agribusiness recognized the damage that rumors of mad cow or other lethal agents in the food supply could do and lobbied lawmakers to pass food disparagement laws in the late 1990s. Oprah Winfrey herself was tried in Amarillo in 1997 for “disparaging” beef when she remarked on her show that she would never eat a hamburger again after learning of the forced cannibalism on U.S. farms, causing cattlemen to lose $11 million when prices plummeted. She was acquitted.

Since the three U.S. mad cows, beef producers and officials are quick to reassure the public when CJD cases surface that the brain diseases are not variant CJD from eating meat. Still, the damage control is tough when cases occur in clusters since sporadic or classic CJD by definition occur randomly and not in clusters.

Soon after the Washington state cow, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated a potential cluster of more than 13 CJD cases, thought by some to be linked to food served at the Garden State Racetrack in southern New Jersey. But the CDC issued a report that found five of the cases were sporadic CJD, not variant CJD; six were “probable” CJD but not variant; three were not CJD; and three were still under investigation. The occurrence of 14 CJD-related cases over 9.25 years “would not be unusual,” said the CDC.

Apparent clusters of nine people in Idaho in 2005 ((Rare Disease Raises Questions—Idaho Cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Herald Journal, October 23, 2005)) , four in northeastern Indiana in 2007 and two in Tennessee in 2009, were similarly smoothed over. And when a CJD patient was admitted to an Amarillo, Texas hospital in 2008 causing cattle futures to tank, a beef-cattle specialist with the Amarillo office of Texas AgriLife Extension assured the public the case was sporadic not variant – before test results were even in. Two years later, there were more questions about CJD cases in Texas. A map of “CJD Cases by County 2000–2010” on the Texas Department of State Health Services website shows two red areas that look like, well, clusters.

Nonetheless, Americans seem less rattled about beef scares than are countries they export to. As the U.S. and South Korea prepared to sign the free-trade agreement, KORUS FTA, in 2008, which included wide provisions for beef trade, actual riots over the risk of mad cow in U.S. beef broke out in South Korea. “We Don’t Like the FDA,” “Mad Cow, You Eat It!” and “Send Mad Cow to the Presidential Office!” chanted demonstrators at candlelight vigils in 22 cities, some dressed in cow costumes.

Fueling the riots were reports in local media that Koreans are genetically more vulnerable to vCJD, that mad cow prions were in cosmetics, diapers and sanitary napkins and television images of downer cows at Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, California fork-lifted and “water-boarded” to slaughter for National School Lunch Program a few months earlier. And even as President George W. Bush assured South Korean president Lee Myung-bak at Camp David during the trade negotiations that U.S. beef was safe, a case of CJD appeared in a 22-year-old Virginia woman who had never left the country. It was an unusually young age for CJD if it weren’t variant.

As the U.S. now seeks “negligible risk” status for mad cow disease, there’s no reason to believe its institutionalized ineptitude, denial and misinformation about beef risks has changed and therefore that such a classification means anything. In fact, there is only one government safeguard that beef consumers can count on: if more mad cows surface, the names of the ranches that produce them will be protected.

An earlier version of this report appeared on

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist/cartoonist who writes about public health. Her latest book is Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies (2023). Her first book was Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Martha.