On December 23, 2003, then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had received word that a Holstein cow slaughtered two weeks earlier in Washington State had suffered from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. She went on to offer the American public strong assurances that any risk to public health in the United States was “extremely low.” In fact, Veneman said she planned to have beef with her Christmas dinner, two days later.
The discovery of the Washington State mad cow might have been a wake-up call to a sleeping federal regulatory establishment. Instead, the Bush Administration approached it as a public relations problem. After USDA determined that the Washington State Holstein had been imported into the United States from Canada, it subtly suggested that the incident was a quirk of the international trading regime and at most a transitional problem stemming from the fact that animal feeding restrictions were not in effect in Canada when the aging cow was growing up.
Prior to the discovery of the mad cow, the federal government had confidently assured the public that three effective “firewalls” were in place to protect the public health from the risk of mad cow disease: import controls to keep out infected cattle; a “surveillance” program aimed at identifying and testing suspect cattle at the slaughterhouse, and restrictions on what cattle may be fed.
In the view of CPR’s Thomas McGarity, a professor of food safety law at the University of Texas Law School, the Bush Administration's response laid bare the problems with an enforcement agency that is first and foremost a cheerleader for agri-business. Its “firewalls” were designed more to protect the meat industry from economic loss than to protect the health of the American public from mad cow disease, he concludes. He argues for a truly independent federal agency to oversee food safety enforcement.