June 11, 2008

About 50 countries, including Korea, Taiwan and Japan the last of which accounted for 36 percent of American beef exports closed their doors to American beef after the first confirmed case of mad cow disease was found in Moses Lake, Wash., in December 2003.

The circumstances of that first case, and the defensive reactions of the United States Department of Agriculture after its discovery, led to years of skepticism by American consumer groups and difficult negotiations with foreign countries over reopening their markets—especially in Asia’s wealthier countries, where consumers are used to demanding that their governments certify that imported food is safe.

Although the first infected cow was probably not a “downer”—too diseased or crippled to walk—it was part of a shipment of broken-down old dairy cows, and it became clear from press reports that some small slaughterhouses specialized in taking such borderline animals, which often had to be hoisted or winched out of their trucks on chains.

Also, by the time the test results came back two weeks after the cow was killed, it had already been ground into hamburger, mixed with 10,000 pounds of meat from other animals and shipped to supermarkets. Despite a multi-state recall, experts conceded that much had undoubtedly been cooked and eaten. The cow’s spinal cord—likely to contain the most infectious material—had been sent to a plant that made food for pets and pigs.

In the wake of the first case, the Agriculture Department issued assurances that American beef was safe. Although most Americans did not stop buying beef, foreign customers were openly skeptical, for several reasons.

The chief one was that the United States was testing only a tiny fraction of the 30 million animals it slaughtered each year. In 1997, the year it banned feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants because of the suspicions about the disease in Europe, it tested only 219 animals. In 2003, when the first positive was found, it was testing about 20,000 a year.

At the time, European countries were testing 10 million animals annually, and the Japanese were testing every one of the 1.2 million they slaughtered. (Dr. Ron DeHaven, then the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinarian, publicly mocked that standard, comparing it to a doctor testing every patient, regardless of age or sex, for prostate cancer.)

Even after the first case was found, the department initially resisted increased its testing, and then raised it to only about 40,000 animals a year.

Department officials explained that their testing was only for surveillance, not food safety. The sampling was designed to give 95 percent certainty of finding the disease if it existed in one in a million cattle which is the rate that would be expected from spontaneous genetic mutations, such as those found in humans with the degenerative brain disease known as Creutzfeld-Jakob syndrome.

There were other suspicions about its motives. Many other countries have food safety agencies that are separate from their agriculture departments, which exist primarily to help farmers and increase farm sales. In the United States, however, the Agriculture Department, not the Food and Drug Administration, certifies meat as safe.

The secretary of agriculture at the time, Ann M. Veneman, was a former food industry lobbyist and her spokeswoman had previously been the chief spokeswoman for the beef lobby.

The department initially took some more measures to increase safety and reassure customers.

It approved rapid tests that could give results on carcasses while they were still in the slaughterhouse. (Carcasses are usually chilled for 24 hours after slaughter to make them easier to cut up.) It banned downer cattle from the food supply.

And in early 2004, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to ban feeding cow blood, waste from chicken coop floors and plate waste from restaurants to cattle. Blood had been in formula fed to calves as a substitute for milk, chicken feed could contain rendered beef protein, and restaurant waste, of course, included beef.

But some Agriculture Department decisions were not reassuring.

Under political pressure, the F.D.A. bans on cow blood, chicken dung and plate waste were never implemented.

In early 2004, the Agriculture Department denied a Kansas beef producer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, permission to test all of its cows so it could again ship beef to customers in Japan, which had agreed to accept tested cows. The company complained that it was losing $40,000 a day and had had to lay off 50 employees while it could not export to Japan.

The department refused, saying such testing would “imply a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted.” American consumer groups were apoplectic, but the beef industry which did not want to be pressured to spend $25 or so testing every animal applauded the move. Creekstone is still suing the Agriculture Department for the right to test.

Then, in mid-2005, when the second case of mad cow disease was confirmed in the U.S., it was revealed that the Agriculture Department had concealed for seven months the fact that one of the tests it had performed on the sample had been positive. The test similar to one used in other countries had been ruled “experimental” and not reported.

Finally, bending to pressure from consumer groups and from its own inspector general, which had called its testing seriously flawed, the Agriculture Department tested 650,000 animals in 2005 and 2006 about one out of every 90 slaughtered.

Ultimately, only three confirmed positive animals were found, suggesting that the disease, if it was present at all in the American beef supply, was at very low levels possibly at one time in older animals born before the feed ban, or in a few animals who developed spontaneous cases.

Tokyo lifted the ban on American beef in late 2005, after a food safety commission ruled that American safety measures were now adequate, but reinstated it less than a month later after Japanese inspectors found backbone in imported veal. Japan lifted the ban again in July 2006.

Overall, fears about the issue began to fade.

However, in February, an animal rights group, the Humane Society of the United States, released videotapes it had taken at animal auctions showing downer cows being shocked, prodded with forklifts and blasted with hoses to force them into standing long enough so they could be certified for slaughter — again raising questions about how rigorously the Agriculture Department enforces food-safety rules.