US shifts on mad-cow risk

Cattle critics, officials clash over issue, leave consumers bedeviled

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / December 25, 2003

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Seven months ago, when a lone Canadian cow was stricken with mad cow disease, US agricultural authorities were so concerned they clamped a ban on all beef imports from the northern neighbor. Now, with this nation embroiled in a similar crisis, those same officials are urging consumers to serve beef for Christmas dinner and dine on hamburgers the day after.

Confronted with that apparent contradiction, government regulators acknowledged yesterday they may have been too hasty in their move to temporarily block Canadian beef imports.

But critics of the cattle industry and the government's efforts to assure its safety countered yesterday that US beef eaters should consume their meat with caution -- and a heaping helping of skepticism.

"We shut our borders when exactly the same problem happened in Canada," said Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a think tank in Minneapolis. "The obvious contradiction now should be pointed out, and it is a disservice to the public for the secretary of agriculture to try to minimize the need for people to take conscious action to protect themselves. To say now, `Oh, it's not any kind of major problem,' it kind of drives me crazy."

Such statements were lambasted as fear mongering by a coalition representing restaurants and food companies.

"Americans should be more concerned about the scare tactics being fomented by some activists than they should be scared of the food supply," said David Martosko, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit group supported by restaurant and food industries. "Reputable scientists are saying in droves there's no reason for alarm. Environmentalists and animal-rights nuts are saying the sky is falling. Who should we believe?"

The intense dichotomy of views leaves consumers in the same quandary that bedeviled them through much of the 1990s amid outbreaks of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and listeria: When is it safe to eat the sandwich from the neighborhood burger joint or the roast pulled out of the supermarket cooler?

As food-safety specialists, veterinarians, and activists of all stripe weighed the implications of a single cow testing positive for mad cow disease on a farm near Yakima, Wash., there appeared to be agreement on this much: Parts of cows used for steaks and roasts are widely considered to be safe because they are harvested from a part of the animal that mad cow doesn't infect.

There was far less uniformity of opinion regarding ground beef used to make hamburgers.

Beef used in steaks and roasts typically comes from cattle younger than two years -- animals considered too young to develop mad cow. And those meats come from muscle tissue, which scientists have found is not a welcoming environment for mad cow. The same can be said for milk.

"What should consumers know?" said James Cullor, director of the Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center, which is affiliated with the University of California at Davis. "Those muscle tissues have been very, very low priority for the transmission of the disease. And consumers should feel comfortable with their milk."

Hamburger, though, is potentially more problematic -- at least according to critics of the beef industry.

They assert that because hamburger meat sometimes comes from dairy cows older than 30 months -- the cow testing positive for mad cow, for example, was 4 years old -- it is more vulnerable to the disease. Critics say there's also a chance that hamburger meat could become contaminated during processing with the brains or other components of the central nervous system that harbor mad cow disease.

Ground beef is made from the leftover parts of a cow using a high-speed industrial process, which the critics say creates a risk that diseased tissue could get mixed in.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommended that consumers not consume ground beef unless they do the grinding themselves, using muscle meat.

But the National Cattleman's Beef Association rejected that admonition, saying measures adopted by the industry and regulations enforced by the government have combined to make certain that contaminated tissue doesn't mingle with safe meat in hamburger.

"We're confident that even if we are producing beef from animals over 30 months [old], we're confident we have systems in place to prevent brain and spinal cord" from becoming present, said Gary Weber, an executive with the cattleman's consortium.

Stephen Smith can be reached at