Food Safety vs. Promotion of Industry: Can the USDA Protect Americans from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?

When bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, first struck the United States in December 2003, a debate raged over whether the tragedy that decimated Great Britain’s beef industry had finally reached U.S. shores, or whether the infected cow was an anomaly which had somehow broken through a BSE “firewall.” After major importers halted importation of U.S. beef, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced long-awaited new regula-tions, including increased testing for BSE. Shortly thereafter, two private producers petitioned the USDA for permission to test their own cattle for BSE, and were turned down on the authority of the 1913 Virus, Serum, and Toxin Act (VSTA).The second case of BSE in the United States arrived among a mixture of criticism and praise. While some claimed the USDA’s regulations were inadequate and unenforced, others pointed at the agency’s BSE controls as minimizing BSE’s impact on the American cattle herd. Either way, the second BSE case revealed inconsistencies in USDA policy and pointed to the need for a more comprehensive BSE prevention policy.This note examines and questions the efficacy of the USDA’s BSE testing policies. The author notes that the USDA inconsistently enforces BSE prevention regulations and argues that increased testing is necessary. The author also contends that the VSTA does not authorize the USDA to prevent cattle producers from testing their cattle for BSE.To resolve the problem, the author recommends that the USDA create a comprehensive BSE testing and tracking policy. The author suggests that, among other things, the USDA widen the scope of testing to include younger cows and more random tests. Moreover, the USDA should license and regulate voluntary BSE testing. Finally, the author proposes that tracking, labeling, and mandatory recall policies and procedures be implemented by the USDA to more closely follow and contain the disease.

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