Mad Cow Forces Beef Industry to Change Course
Mad Cow Forces Beef Industry to Change Course
Tue Jan 6 16:11:32 2004

Date: 5 Jan 2004
From: ProMED-mail
Source: NY Times [edited] >

Mad Cow Forces Beef Industry to Change Course
A dairy farmer in Washington State, used to burn the carcasses of his
hobbled "downer" cattle until he found there was a market for their meat.
Even so, selling damaged cows for human consumption never sat well with
[him], who in 2001 briefly had in his feedlot the Holstein cow identified
in December 2003 as the downer with mad cow disease.

"It's an absurd practice," [he] said in an interview. "Foolishness caused
by maybe a certain amount of greed."

The financial motive that drove the industry to defend practices like
selling downers has been turned on its head by the discovery of mad cow
disease. Now, in an attempt to rescue the market for American beef, the
industry is being forced to accept regulation it has long fought.

But some large American companies that process and sell beef had already
abandoned those more controversial practices, which had been a rallying
point for food safety advocates since mad cow disease appeared overseas
nearly 2 decades ago. While a schism developed in the industry, the current
crisis reveals how government regulators sided with companies that adhered
to those methods of operation.

When an animal rights group, Farm Sanctuary, and an individual, sued the
government to force a ban on using downer animals for food, government
lawyers persuaded a federal judge to dismiss the case on the ground that
mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), had not
appeared in the United States.

"The threat of BSE from downed livestock is not `real and immediate'," the
lawyers argued. "BSE has never been found in the country's livestock, and
there is no reasoned basis to expect that it ever will be considering the
measures being taken against it." An appeals court reinstated the case on
16 Dec 2003 -- one week before the announcement that the disease had been

For years, the industry had a simple strategy: Fight proposals that would
cramp its ability to squeeze as much revenue as possible from each cow. The
finances were compelling.

At least 150 000 downer cattle -- those who because of injury or illness
cannot walk -- were sold annually for human consumption for as much as a
few hundred dollars apiece, extra money for cattlemen struggling with low
prices. Food safety advocates warned that these cattle could carry disease,
but the political power of the industry was evident in 2002 when its
lobbyists helped defeat legislation banning the commercial slaughter of
downer cattle even after it had been approved by the House and the Senate.

In the 1990's, meatpackers bought machines that were able to strip a few
extra pounds off carcasses while saving millions in labor costs. Critics
tried to limit the use of the so-called advanced meat recovery systems
(AMR), citing studies showing that the extra meat was sometimes laced with
nerve tissues, where mad cow disease can incubate. But by one consultant's
account several years ago, getting rid of the machines would mean a loss to
the industry of more than $130 million a year.

Now the money saved by fighting those changes is dwarfed by the billions
the industry stands to lose unless it can convince consumers, especially
overseas, that its beef is safe.

"They played a high-risk, high-stakes game, and they lost their bet," said
Representative Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat who pushed for a ban
on the commercial slaughter of downer cows. "Now the perception among
millions of people is that this product isn't safe, and they can't put
Humpty Dumpty back together again."

It Was the Best of Times
As part of the campaign to restore consumer confidence, Agriculture
Secretary Ann M. Veneman last week banned the use of downer cattle for meat
and imposed further regulation on advanced recovery systems. Still, after
the disease was detected in December 2003, cattle prices plunged about 20
percent, while the $3.6 billion export market for beef, veal, and variety
meats largely evaporated, according to Cattle-Fax, an industry research
firm. This came after United States beef prices had reached record highs,
partly because of the restriction of imports from Canada after the mad cow
outbreak there and the rising popularity of beef-friendly eating trends
like the Atkins diet.

"The last year had been heaven on earth for beef producers," said Don
Stull, a co-author of "Slaughterhouse Blues," a study of the meat industry.

But even in the best of times, meatpacking remains a cutthroat business.
Steve Kay, the publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, estimates that profit
margins rarely climb above 2 percent as companies deal with fluctuating
cattle prices and relatively higher labor costs. Those financial
constraints, which led meatpackers to harvest every last pound of meat,
also caused consolidation in the industry.

5 meatpackers now slaughter more than 80 percent of the nation's steers and
heifers: Tyson, Excel, Swift, National Beef Packing, and Smithfield. Bigger
slaughterhouses have cut processing costs by as much as 40 percent,
according to Agriculture Department data. Wholesale beef prices have
declined almost every year since the early 1980's.

"We have the cheapest food supply in the world in terms of what we spend on
food as part of our incomes," said Dean Cliver, a professor of population
health at the University of California at Davis.

Affordable beef has helped make for easy relations between the industry and
federal regulators. According to the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, a consumer group, a dozen top officials of the Department of
Agriculture have worked or lobbied for the industry or for industry trade
groups. They include Jim Moseley, the deputy agriculture secretary, who was
managing director of Infinity Pork LLC, a hog farm; Dr. Chuck Lambert, the
deputy under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, who was chief
economist of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association; and Mary Waters,
the assistant secretary for Congressional relations, who was senior
director and legislative counsel for ConAgra Foods. "It's not surprising
the industry has so much influence given the number of U.S.D.A. officials
who have been hired directly out of the meat industry," said Caroline Smith
DeWaal, the center's food safety director.

Alisa Harrison, the department's press secretary, said Secretary Veneman
set policy by consulting a wide range of advisers and interest groups. "To
make a sweeping charge that her decisions are influenced just because she
has people from industry on her staff is very disingenuous," she said. She
also noted that the department's top food safety official, Dr. Elsa A.
Murano, had been director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M

Ms. Harrison also said the department had been attentive to the dangers of
mad cow well before December 2003. "We were able to make the quick
announcement that we did last week because a lot of the groundwork had been
going on" since the discovery in May 2003 of a cow in Canada with the
disease, she said. "These are things we have been looking at."

But the debate over the advanced recovery system shows how the industry and
regulators have resisted pressure from safety advocates since the disease
appeared in Britain in 1986 and then spread to 18 other European countries.

New Process, New Concerns
The AMR technology, developed a decade ago, uses hydraulic pressure to
force extra pounds off cow carcasses, producing filler for processed foods
like hamburger, hot dogs, and pizza toppings. Consumer groups initially
complained that bone was getting into the advanced meat recovery product
and argued that the product should not be labeled as beef. Then, in 1997,
federal agriculture officials announced that they had found spinal cord
tissue in some of the meat.

Concerned that the nerve tissue could increase the public's risk of
contracting mad cow disease, consumer groups asked the government to ban
the technology, said Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers

But both the industry and government regulators resisted, arguing that the
absence of the disease in the United States showed that there was no
problem. "For us, so far, it's a non-public-health issue because we have no
BSE," Kaye Wachsmuth, who was then deputy administrator for public health
science at the Agriculture Department, said in 1998.

There were other arguments against the ban. The machinery replaced workers
who could suffer crippling injury from trimming the carcasses by hand; one
consultant study estimated that 394 workers would be injured if
slaughterhouses returned to hand-trimming.

Companies that sell the machines say such beef poses no threat. "The
accepted science essentially states that there is not any relationship
between BSE and AMR," said Harold T. Hodges, vice president of government
relations and product quality for the BFD Corporation, one of the
distributors of the machines. "We've never had an issue."

Proponents of the technology argued that proper enforcement of the
technology, rather than a ban, could prevent contamination.

"It's always been a legitimate enforcement compliance issue to ensure that
what you call beef is beef," said Robert Hibbert, a lawyer who represented
meat processors that used the technology. "There is no justification for
banning something on the basis that it has been removed by a machine rather
than by hand with a knife."

But some industry officials worried that not every processor used the
machinery properly. At an American Meat Institute conference in Chicago in
1997, an executive of a major beef producer warned that applying too much
pressure would force bone material into the beefy mush. In addition, the
spinal cord has to be carefully removed before the cow carcass is fed to
the machine.

Second Thoughts
As federal officials continued to find traces of nervous system tissue in
recovered beef, some companies determined that the potential cost of these
practices outweighed the gains.

With consumer groups pressing for a boycott of meat produced using advanced
recovery technology, a host of restaurants and producers announced they
were AMR-free, including General Mills and McDonald's, which swore off
downer-cow meat as well.

In a fact sheet, McDonald's says, "These policies meet or exceed all
government requirements, and have been reviewed by our international
scientific council on B.S.E., made up of renowned experts in this field."

Meanwhile, some slaughterhouses had other reasons to stop using the
machines. In late 2002, Shapiro Packing, a processor in Augusta, Ga.,
produced tainted beef using the machinery system. The contaminated material
was destroyed, but the company had to spend a lot of money to shore up its
operation, said Dane Bernard, vice president for food safety at Keystone
Foods, which manages Shapiro Packing.

Additional workers were placed on the line to ensure that the carcasses
were properly stripped of their spinal cords, and the company's inspections
became nearly continuous, Mr. Bernard said. The new measures increased
expenses while big beef buyers were boasting that their food was not
processed using AMR systems. So during the summer of 2003, Shapiro
mothballed its machinery and returned to manual trimming.

"I can't say we had a crystal ball," Mr. Bernard said. "Sometimes it's
better to be lucky than good."

The discovery of mad cow disease is likely to increase the debate over the
technology. Dr. Wachsmuth, the agriculture official who defended the
technology in 1998, said in an interview on Saturday that the absence of
the disease had been an important factor in that defense. "The mere threat
of it wasn't enough," said Dr. Wachsmuth, who is now retired. "Now that we
do have BSE, maybe it should be revisited."

Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, the meatpackers'
trade group, said the number of processors using the technology had
recently fallen to fewer than 30 from 35. He said that the machines once
produced several hundred million pounds of meat a year, but that a survey
in late 2002 found the number had dropped to 45 million.

Even so, he said, "We're confident that this is a safe, wholesome product
that doesn't trigger any concern or carry any danger in its use." But he
acknowledged that some members of the association were less supportive:
"There are companies that would just as soon we said nothing."

In her announcement last week, Secretary Veneman imposed regulations
intended to further keep unwanted tissue from the food supply, but she
stopped short of a ban on the technology.

Mr. Murphy, the industry spokesman, acknowledged that a further review of
the technology was possible, especially if there is pressure from overseas
trading partners. "Nobody is going to give up $1.2 billion in beef trade
for a handful of AMR [machines]," he said.

In Washington State, the onetime holder of the diseased cow, said that in
the days since the discovery of mad cow [in the US], the industry has
learned a lesson in global economics. [This individual], who has a few
thousand cows in his operation, said that when the occasional downer cow
appeared, a slaughterer would drive out to his farm with a hoist and give
him $100 for the hobbled animal.

But in the wake of the mad cow crisis, he said, "My feeling is that any
money that dairy farmers might have made from downer cows, they gave it all
back this week."

[Byline: Michael Moss, Richard A. Oppel Jr., and Simon Romero]


Date: 5 Jan 2003
From: George Robertson
Source: New York Times, 2 Jan 2004 [edited] >

Officials Destroying Calves, Including That of Sick Cow
As federal investigators search for cows that were imported from Canada
with the cow that was found to have the nation's first known case of mad
cow disease, Washington State officials have begun a process that will kill
the offspring of the sick cow.

The cow, which was sent from a dairy farm in Mabton, Wash., and slaughtered
on 9 Dec 2003, gave birth to a bull calf shortly before slaughter. That
calf was sent to a feedlot in Sunnyside, about 10 miles north of the Mabton
ranch, but because officials cannot pinpoint the calf, they plan to kill
all the calves in the feedlot herd of 464 that are under 30 days old, the
same age as the sick cow's offspring, said Linda Waring, a spokeswoman for
the state's Department of Agriculture.

Correction: 3 Jan 2004
An article yesterday about plans to kill the offspring of a cow that was
found to have mad cow disease misstated the role of Washington State
agriculture officials. They are helping to identify a group of bull calves
that include one born to the infected cow, but it is the United States
Department of Agriculture that will kill the animals.


[The owner of the feed lot housing these veal calves feared that public
opinion would be against him unless all the calves were slaughtered. It is
at the feedlot owner's request that all calves are being slaughtered. USDA
has announced that none of the more than 400 animals will enter the food
chain or the rendering facilities. Mod.TG


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