TOM BEARDEN: These are uncertain times in the American beef industry. The reason is a disease called BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease. It destroys an animal's brain, and can also cause a similar disease in humans who eat infected meat. Just before Christmas, tests confirmed that a cow at a Washington state slaughterhouse was infected, a cow that was already in the food supply.
Reaction was swift. Beef prices plummeted. The $3 billion beef export trade vanished overnight. Thousands of pounds of beef were recalled. And even as the government strove to reassure consumers, the Department of Agriculture was issuing new rules and regulations.
ANN VENEMAN: The actions that we are taking today are steps to enact additional safeguards to protect the public health.
TOM BEARDEN: Ron DeHaven is chief veterinary officer at USDA.
RON DE HAVEN: The risk to the U.S. public, and to the foreign public that might be eating U.S. beef, is minuscule.
TOM BEARDEN: The government said it would now test twice as many animals for BSE at the slaughterhouse than ever before, about 40,000 head each year. The agency also proposed a new system to track cattle so that the source of any future infected animals could be traced immediately. Finally, USDA banned the use of "downer" cattle in the human food supply. The term refers to animals that are unable to walk -- a symptom cows with end-stage BSE sometimes exhibit.
Then this week, the Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over animal feed practices, added several new rules of its own. The agency ruled that cows' blood could no longer be given to calves as a milk substitute. The FDA also banned the practice of feeding spilled poultry feed, which sometimes contains cattle tissue, back to cattle. Consumer groups had argued that both practices could be a source of infection. Meanwhile, both sides are concerned about how some of the new rules may work.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: I think that the new regulations have more holes in them than a mad cow's brain.
TOM BEARDEN: Carol Tucker Foreman is the director of food safety at the Consumer Federation of America. She believes the number of additional inspections being proposed are far too low.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: The testing proposals are not adequate. They're going to double the amount. But the Japanese have said they won't accept our meat unless we test all of the animals. That may be the best hope American consumers have for more testing. We have suggested that you ought to test at least all of the animals over 24 months old.
TOM BEARDEN: But DeHaven says the testing program is a statistically valid way to determine if BSE exists.
RON DE HAVEN: What protects human health is not testing. What protects human health is doing what you can to keep the disease out of the country, and even on the outside chance that we have it in the U.S., taking those tissues that would be at risk out of the human food chain, so we've done those things.
SPOKESMAN: It is a chronic degenerative nerve disease.
TOM BEARDEN: BSE was a hot topic at the national western stock show in Denver in mid- January. Ranchers gather here each year to show off their best animals and enhance the reputations of their herds. Bob Rolston is the president of the Colorado Livestock Association. He says 36 million cattle are slaughtered in the U.S. every year, that the industry is just too big to test so many animals.
BOB ROLSTON: It would literally be almost an impossibility from sheer numbers. And besides, science has shown that the cattle under 18 months of age have not carried this disease. So it seems ridiculous to do that. But basically the cattle that we slaughter for the ... for our food chain are cattle 18 months and younger.
TOM BEARDEN: Fortunately, testing for BSE recently became much faster. These scientists at Colorado State University are running a test for a disease in game animals that is very similar to BSE new procedures yield results that used to take two weeks in just a day or so, which make it possible for slaughterhouses to hold meat until testing is complete, rather than releasing it to market and having to recall it later.
Dr. Barbara Powers is the director of the CSU's veterinary diagnostic. She says USDA's decision to take downer cows out of the food chain is a good one, but that it also creates a new problem.
DR. BARBARA POWERS: They were coming to the slaughterhouse and they would be tested by ... or samples would be taken by the veterinarians at the slaughterhouse. But now that they're banned from going into the food supply at all, it's going to be a challenge to collect those samples, and those are the samples that are most important to test for BSE.
TOM BEARDEN: Powers says incentives have to be established for cattlemen to seek the tests, and that a mechanism has to be found to pay for them. In addition to more testing, the Agriculture Department is calling for a new identification system for cattle, to be able trace the origin of infected animals much more rapidly in the future. It took several days to discover that the Washington state animal had been purchased in Canada, and the search for other animals from the same herd is still under way. A lot of the people in the cattle business say they support an identification program, but they also say they have serious questions about how any such program would work.
Today, cattle are identified in many different ways. Ear tags are common. So are tattoos, as well as traditional branding. Some operations use radio-sensitive microchips embedded under the skin. But there is no single standard. And the livestock business is complicated. About half the animals that wind up in the human food supply come from small herds. They can be sold and resold four or more times, and they're frequently mixed with animals from other herds. Ear tags often come off, and it can be a real challenge to backtrack a single animal from among thousands of others at a feed lot.
BOB ROLSTON: And that's the biggest issue right there. Cattle moving from small ranches to larger feed lots and feed lots into different regions, different parts of the country. That's going to be the toughest thing right there is they move around from area to area and not just state to state.
TOM BEARDEN: Roger Evans is a part-time rancher in Kiowa, Colo., and the president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
ROGER EVANS: What we want to do is we want the government to be involved, but we don't want them to have the final say because if this ID program is not producer friendly, if it's not going to work out here in my cows or in anybody else's cows, it's not going to work at all. And if we're going to enter into this, it's got to work; it's got to work without a shadow of a doubt.
TOM BEARDEN: Rancher Kenny Rogers worries that a federally operated program would be tantamount to making his private financial information available to anybody.
KENNY ROGERS: Certain governmental agencies are under the Freedom of Information Act, and quite honestly, I don't think I need anyone that just wants to waltz in here and request that, having access to the numbers and my herd size and things of that nature.
TOM BEARDEN: But consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman doesn't buy that argument.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: I can't help the paranoia of the American cattlemen. They would like to not have the government in their lives at all. There are some obligations we have to the larger community and they are a part of the larger community.
TOM BEARDEN: Some ranchers are also worried about the cost of a tracking program. One estimate is that it would take about $600 million to set one up, and about $100 million a year to run it. But Foreman doesn't think the government is really serious about the idea. She says the system now being proposed is voluntary.
CAROL TUCKER FOREMAN: Voluntary system? We need a mandatory, public animal identification system that the government has the power to endorse. Having a voluntary system is like having voluntary income taxes. It's not very meaningful.
DR. RON DE HAVEN: The first step in developing an animal ID system is to get a functional system in place. And then we feel quite comfortable the compliance will, in fact, be widespread. There will be a market advantage to participating in an animal ID system.
TOM BEARDEN: So it will be voluntary?
DR. RON DE HAVEN: We don't know that yet. Let's take it step by step, and the first step is to create a functional system and then start loading that system with information from animals around the country.
TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, several companies are offering possible solutions to the hodgepodge of identification methods. A company called Optibrand, in conjunction with Colorado State University, has developed a retinal scanning device that would allow animals to be tracked electronically. But a lot of important details of an identification system remain to be worked out: Who will run it, how it will be paid for, who will have access to the information it generates, and how requirements to use it would be enforced. The USDA says it will announce decisions that will further clarify the new regulations in the next several weeks.