Where’s the Beef?

The Washington Post issued a smackdown to a couple of Presidential candidates this morning with an editorial chastising them for grandstanding on “mad cow disease”, or BSE:

Democratic front-runner Howard Dean announced that the discovery of an infected cow in Washington state “raises serious concerns about the ability of this administration to protect the safety of our nation’s food supply.” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) helpfully urged President Bush “for once not to listen to the demands of corporate America and act on behalf of the health and economic needs of all Americans.” All of this may be good politics for candidates who have to campaign in farm states such as Iowa. The trouble is that, at least at this stage, there is no particular reason to think that the regulatory systems designed to prevent an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in this country didn’t function as intended.
So far, anyway, the United States has seen exactly one infected cow. That case was detected because of routine testing of high-risk cattle … In other words, a system designed to prevent the spread of the disease and identify cattle carrying it may well have done just that.

I haven’t posted on this topic, mostly because it doesn’t particularly interest me, and also out of a belief that the media would lose interest in a single case rather than turn it into the next Alar scare. It didn’t occur to me that supposedly responsible politicians would latch onto it in order to start a consumer panic that could damage our economy and unnecessarily frighten the electorate. I guess I gave Howard Dean and John Kerry a little too much credit.
I traveled to Ireland in the summer of 2001 when foot-and-mouth disease was being detected all over the British Isles, and there is no doubt that it was an economic disaster. Sheep and cattle were slaughtered en masse in order to stop the spread of the disease, and disinfectant stations were set up at all farms and public attractions, as the virus that causes F&M can stick to soles of shoes and survive for a few days. The Irish Republic had mostly been spared except for a single case near the border with Northern Ireland. (Flocks migrate back and forth across the poorly-delineated hilly border country of Antrim.) However, its proximity to Northern Ireland and the UK (where the disease raged) severely impacted the export of beef and mutton and resulted in large subsidies to farmers until the disease was stamped out. When returning to the US, we had to again be disinfected when we came through Customs, a quick and almost effortless process.
No one is doubting that a string of BSE cases can be similarly economically devastating, but what we have here is a single case, from an animal that was born prior to feed controls enacted in 1997, and already known to be high-risk and tested as a result. The FDA is enacting more stringent controls regarding “downer” cattle, but so far it appears that the system put in place by the Bush administration worked as intended. Blaming Bush for an appearance of BSE in a cow that was exported to the US and detected by the apparatus his administration put in place makes little sense. Making sense is what Presidential candidates should be doing, and the Dean and Kerry campaigns have been failures at this task, among others.
UPDATE: I have edited this post after an alert reader, John, reminded me that what I experienced in Ireland was a foot-and-mouth outbreak and not BSE. BSE was an issue at the same time but was not the cause of all the measures being taken at the time I was in Ireland. He is correct, and while his feedback remains in the comments section, most people read these from the main page.