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GWEN IFILL: This is the first time mad cow disease has been discovered within the United States. Within 48 hours, it spawned supermarket recalls, multiple quarantines, and caused trading partners to slam shut their borders to American beef.
The Agriculture Department has launched an extensive investigation into where the infection came from and where it might spread, all of which poses major implications for the beef industry, and potentially for public health.
Here to delve a little more deeply into the mad cow ripple effect are Philip Seng, the president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, an industry trade association; and Michael Hansen, senior research associate at Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group.
Michael Hansen, we have heard the Agriculture Department talk about the screening process which they used to determine whether cows in the food supply chain have mad cow. Do you think it’s enough?
MICHAEL HANSEN: No, it’s not. We tested 20,000 cattle last year out of a national herd of 97 million, and if you compare that, Europe tested about 11 million cattle out of a herd of 40 million. So our testing is woefully inadequate. We’re testing far too few animals, and we’re not using the rapid quick tests that everybody else is.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Seng, let’s talk about that test. I know that you do a lot of business with beef suppliers who are dealing with exports. You just heard what he said about what happens in Europe. We know that there is far more extensive testing in Japan. Is the United States doing enough?
PHILIP SENG: Well, the United States is doing everything possible, I think, to assure most consumers in the United States and consumers abroad that we are supplying a safe and wholesome product. Those countries who are doing successive testing after they had contracted the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease].
The United States still is testing at ten times the required amount by the OIE, which is headquartered in Paris, France, which is a worldwide standard. So I think for the most part the United States has done a stellar job. Our trading partners for the most part have been very, very supportive of our efforts, and we can say with confidence that our product is safe that we’re offering here in the United States today, and what we’re offering abroad.
GWEN IFILL: But the trading partners like Japan and Mexico and Russia have basically said they don’t want any U.S. beef, for the short term at least. Is that supportive?
PHILIP SENG: Well, these are temporary bans they have in place until there’s more definitive information that’s forthcoming from the USDA as far as this incident is concerned. I think that once the information is made clear, I think they understand exactly the safety assurances that we have in place, I expect a resumption of trade because it’s so important to the U.S. industry and also to those countries as well.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hansen, today at the Agriculture Department, the USDA, they were saying that they have put measures in place, they have instituted recalls of a lot of the potentially affected beef, that there was a 1997 ban on the kind of feed which was found to have caused mad cow disease, and that brains and spinal cord matter in some of these cows which are thought to contain the disease are not supposed to be recycled. They’re supposed to be taken out separately in many cases. Don’t you think that, or do you think that that has been enough?
MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, that clearly hasn’t been enough, because, number one, we know that the brain and spinal cord and other parts of this animal were sent to a renderer, which means that can go into the animal feed, the pet food, and cosmetic chain. So that is not good enough.
We haven’t tested anywhere near the number of animals that we should, and the … that official number from OIE, that’s a misrepresentation because the OIE actually suggests that every single downer animal should be tested in all countries. In the U.S. that’s at least 200,000 cows. So they’re not testing enough.
GWEN IFILL: I just want to get some definitions on the table. When you say “downer animal,” you mean animals which are unable to walk on their own?
MICHAEL HANSEN: Yes. They go down for whatever reason. What the secretary of Agriculture said on Tuesday is they claim that this cow was indeed a downer cow.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Seng, in Japan and in Canada, in countries where they have — and Britain — where they have had incidents, confirmed incidents of mad cow, they have far more rigorous testing requirements. Now, that there has been a mad cow incident in the United States, do you expect that those kinds of more rigorous test might be necessary here as well?
PHILIP SENG: Well, I think all this is under review at the USDA, but it’d be presumptuous for me to even try to speculate as far as what will be happening forthcoming, but I do know that all these are things that are being looked at the USDA, but I couldn’t speculate on what steps they will take henceforth in the future. That would be for the USDA.
GWEN IFILL: I get that. What I guess I’m trying to figure out, in your dealings with foreign importers, people who take our beef, whether they might demand that now of the United States.
PHILIP SENG: Well, I think that the foreign countries that we deal with, and of course we deal with over 90 countries worldwide where we export our product, for the most part I think the science and the standard science would show if you have animal that’s under 30 months of age, if you have proper removal of the SRM material, if you have a proper meat and bone meal bans, and it’s enforced to the ninth degree, everything will be okay.
So I feel very confident that what we have in place now is working. The system is working as it detected this animal. And so this is what we’re working on as far as the industry, as far as going forward.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hansen, since this cow was discovered, has the USDA done enough, as opposed to before it was discovered? We’re talking now about pretty extensive — at least every time they find some evidence of where this cow or its offspring may have been — quarantined. Is that plenty?
MICHAEL HANSEN: No. That’s still not good enough because, according to all the global health experts, if an animal comes down with this disease, no part of that animal should enter either the human or animal feed chain. In both cases that looks like that’s happened. They need to trace where all that material is and pull it back, and I would point out that there’s actually a big loophole in the feed ban.
There is a way to feed cow material back to cows, and that’s this loophole for blood and blood products. It is perfectly legal to take bovine plasma, spray dry it, and then you feed it to calves as part of calf milk replacer. This animal was a dairy cow, and it may in fact have gotten calf milk replacer.
GWEN IFILL: But you don’t know that that, you don’t know that that is the case.
MICHAEL HANSEN: No, we don’t know that’s the case, but what I’m saying is it’s legal in the U.S. to take cow’s blood — we know blood does contain the infectious agent — and that cow’s blood can be fed back to other cattle. It can be fed to any animals because that is one of the loopholes in the FDA’s feed ban.
GWEN IFILL: And that’s the kind of loophole you think could be closed now?
MICHAEL HANSEN: That’s one that should be closed immediately, as should the other loopholes that let cattle be ground up and fed to pigs and chicken, and then the pigs and chickens ground up and fed back to the cattle as well.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Seng, does that sound reasonable to you?
PHILIP SENG: Well, I think that the USDA, again, is looking at everything possible to assure our consumers and consumers around the world. I think everything would be addressed as far as the risk analysis involved in this. I’d like to remind you that the Harvard School of Risk did look at the U.S. industry, and it basically gave us a red-letter grade.
I think one case, when you consider what’s happened in the world, is excessive. I would say, as far as the USDA is concerned, as far as my discussions with the USDA, they have made a very, very strong effort, and they will stop at nothing in order to secure and make sure that our food supply is safe.
Yes, there’s always room to improve, but for the most part the United States has the world’s safest food safety and delivery system in the world, and we’re the envy of many, many countries, and I think we should keep things into perspective. I’m very proud, when I go around the world to talk about our assurance programs and what we have to offer, and I know consumers around the world appreciate that.
GWEN IFILL: We’re talking about a billion dollars in exports, Mr. Seng, just in Japan alone, $3 billion worldwide in beef exports. There’s a lot at stake here, financially.
PHILIP SENG: There’s a tremendous amount at stake. The United States right now is the world’s leading exporter of beef. We export about 28 percent of all the beef that’s traded in the world today.
I would also say that for these countries that rely on U.S. beef, a country like Korea, 60 percent of their total beef consumption is derived from the U.S. So this is significant to these countries. Thirty-five percent of their total consumption in Japan comes from the U.S.
So it’s not just a U.S. Issue; it’s an issue for all these countries that have come to depend on the United States as a stable supplier of beef and red meat and protein to their countries.
GWEN IFILL: And finally, Mr. Hansen, it seems as if this … this episode might be the beginning rather than the end in that the incubation period is so … takes so long, that this cow, this single cow may have been infected years ago. Is your sense, if that’s the case, that there’s really anything that tightening the regulations at this point can accomplish?
MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, yes, they could make sure that we don’t have other cases, and I would just like to point out, for Japan, they will not accept cattle above the age of 30 months that have not been tested.
That’s, in fact, what the deal that was worked out with Canada was. So if we want our export markets to open, we’re going to have to start testing large numbers of animals, and the FDA will also have to ban the feeding of rendered animal protein to all food animals.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Hansen and Philip Seng, thank you both very much.
MICHAEL HANSEN: Thank you.
PHILIP SENG: A pleasure.