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The Missing Cows of Mass Destruction

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, June 21, 2013

Where did the panic over mad cow disease go? Off the front pages, for sure. A few years ago, respected journalists warned of a looming public health disaster as Americans consumed deadly hamburgers. They accused the beef industry and government regulators of colluding to hide the problem of mad cow disease.   

Back then, the number of American deaths caused by eating meat from mad cows was zero. The number is still zero, so propriety calls for a correction. Label it an "update," if you prefer. And the item belongs in the prominent spot once occupied by the fear-mongering.  

In 2004, Vanity Fair ran six glossy pages of warnings on the impending mad cow epidemic. The author, Eric Schlosser of "Fast Food Nation" fame, wrote that mad cow disease "confronts the United States with perhaps its most serious and complex food-safety threat."  

The discovery of a single mad cow, brought to Washington state from Canada in 2003, caused South Korea to ban U.S. beef. Four years later, when the restriction was lifted, street protests broke out. Economist Paul Krugman attributed the discontent to "the declining credibility of U.S. food regulation." Yes, credibility was undermined, by misinformed American journalists and competing South Korean beef farmers.   

Such commentary inevitably makes reference to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," a 1906 expose of the horrifying conditions in Chicago meat factories. Sinclair's portrayal is considered accurate, and Theodore Roosevelt used the ensuing public outrage to push for food safety laws. But Roosevelt also regarded Sinclair as a "crackpot" and made no mention of him at the signing of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act while loudly praising Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana.   

Given the nonexistence of human sickness from American mad cows, Krugman's rhetorical question on the matter -- "How did America find itself back in The Jungle?" -- was rather bizarre.   

What fueled the phony mad cow scare? Several things. A few people died of the disease in Europe, mainly through eating meat pies containing the diseased cow's brain and spinal cord, parts Americans don't normally consume. One can eat meat from a mad cow and not get sick.   

Crusading vegetarians used mad cow disease to frighten consumers away from meat. Then there was the red America-blue America angle. Coastal liberals fantasized about dark goings-on in a faraway industry. Rancher conservatives, unschooled in the art of public relations, simmered in quiet resentment, failing to convey their support for effective regulation.   

Indeed, the news of a mad cow in Washington savaged their domestic sales and froze exports. For the U.S. beef industry, there's no upside to sneaking mad cows into the food chain.   

During the scare, the Agriculture Department increased inspections for the disease. When mad cows failed to turn up in significant numbers, it ratcheted back. The department's discovery last year of mad cow disease in a milk cow energized some of the troops, even though milk does not transmit the disease.   

A scientist at Consumers Union dutifully complained: "We really don't know if this is an isolated unusual event or whether there are more cases in U.S. beef. Our monitoring program is just too small."   

A counter-thought: Seeing as there's no reported case of anyone's getting sick, much less dying, from an American mad cow, perhaps the monitoring is adequate.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 Americans died of foodborne diseases in 2011. Falls at home claimed twice as many lives. 

The deadliest foodborne pathogen was salmonella, often linked to poultry. Vegans should know that the CDC also issued salmonella warnings last month about imported cucumbers and tahini paste.   

What might we use as a corrective headline? Here's a cute idea: Inspectors Fail to Find Cows of Mass Destruction.   

CORRECTION: My June 18 column erroneously described an echocardiogram as an electrocardiogram. The economic points made about echocardiograms remain intact.   

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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