February 24, 2007 in Opinion

Our view: Beef rules irksome

The Spokesman-Review
 

Two developments on the mad cow disease front show that it’s taken just over three years for the nation to go from high alert to hands off.

First, documents obtained by Cattle Producers of Washington indicate that the feds and the state of Washington don’t have a reliable system for tracking cows that are shipped across the border from Canada, which recently registered its ninth case of mad cow disease.

Second, the only laboratory in the Northwest that tests cows for mad cow will be closed on March 1.

Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease that attacks the brains and spinal cords of cattle. Infected beef has killed humans in other countries, most notably Britain.

Furthermore, a Washington state law that went into effect in July plunges the public further into the dark because it locks up the very records obtained by the cattle group. And who pushed for this law? The cattle industry.

This means that if others wanted to check up on the government’s ability to track Canadian cattle, they’d be told that related documents are none of their business.

Thus, the public has no way of knowing whether government is sufficiently enforcing livestock laws.

Some lawmakers have said it wasn’t the intent of the law to keep public health information from the public. But that’s not the understanding of the meatpacking industry, which sued the state for releasing the documents. The state says it released them before the law took effect.

So what does all of this mean for the public? For one thing, it’s clear that despite the feds’ pronouncements about tightening the tracking and testing of cattle after an infected cow was found in Mabton, Wash., they have loosened the reins.

The soon-to-be-shuttered testing lab in Pullman was opened in December 2003 as part of an effort to increase safeguards for the nation’s beef supply. Other labs across the country have already been closed because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed the risk of the disease to be “extraordinarily low.”

That move might very well be warranted, but given the USDA’s aggressive push to reintroduce Canadian cattle despite mad cow incidents there and its inability to effectively track those shipments, we wonder whether the agency is acting in its capacity as beef-industry promoter, rather than public protector.

Given this uncertainty, the Washington state Legislature should revise the law it passed last year so the public can at least monitor the process.


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