TCS Daily


End the "Mad Cow" Madness

By Iain Murray - December 17, 2004 12:00 AM

On his first official visit to Canada, President Bush promised to end the madness: the United States' ban on Canadian beef. Such a move is long overdue. The ban has hurt producers and consumers in both countries -- for no public health gain.

Recent news of a second possible case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- popularly known as "mad cow disease" -- in the U.S. proved to be a false alarm when the tests came back negative. But the U.S. border remains closed to Canadian beef because of one confirmed BSE case found in Canada over a year ago.

The President said, "I fully understand the integrated nature of the cattle business and I hope we can get this issue solved as quickly as possible." These are encouraging words. Since the border was closed last year, the previously integrated U.S. and Canadian beef industries have been forced to separate, at great cost.

If the border remains closed for much longer, the two countries' industries will have to adapt permanently, which will mean further cost increases as they duplicate facilities they once shared. And it is consumers who are most hurt by the border closure and the resultant artificial spiking of beef prices. Worse, the total ban on Canadian cattle isn't just economically harmful, it is completely ineffectual in protecting public health.

The simple fact is that the two North American cases of BSE pose no noticeable threat to human health, and precious little to the health of cattle herds. BSE reached epidemic proportions in parts of Europe because of a practice of feeding cattle with contaminated meat, a practice that was always rare in North America because of the ready availability of the alternative soybean meal. But it was nonetheless banned in 1997.

A study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis showed that even if BSE had been introduced to the U.S. in 1990, well before the offending practice was banned, a worst-case scenario estimated only around 24 infected cattle nationwide.

It is inconceivable for such a low level of infection to pose a real threat to human health. For example, recent research has revealed that France suffered an unnoticed BSE epidemic during the 1980s. An estimated 48,000 infected cattle entered the French food chain but only two people contracted the human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). And in the UK, where possibly millions of cattle were infected, 149 people have contracted the fatal disease and the best estimates place the number of future deaths at fewer than 100 -- a far cry from the apocalyptic mid-1990s predictions of hundreds of thousands of fatalities.

Today, the U.S. guards against contaminated meat through a variety of measures, including the 1997 feed ban, import controls, a BSE surveillance program, and public health response plans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long -- and rightly -- argued that the border closure provides no economic or public health benefit. But the agency's efforts to reopen the border were frustrated by an adverse court decision that found USDA rushed through proposals to open the border without giving adequate response to public health and other issues. USDA can easily overcome the court's objections by quickly preparing a more detailed case for re-opening the border.

The case was brought by a regional coalition of Montana beef producers less dependent on exports, but larger groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), who have long experience processing Canadian cattle, steadfastly oppose the border closure.

President Bush would be right to listen to the voices of consumers, of groups like the NCBA, and of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who rightly noted that the issue "has been studied to death."

The Bush administration needs to make good on its good intentions by hastening USDA's work. Every day of delay hurts cattle ranchers, consumers, and America's relations with Canada, its biggest trading partner. It's long past time to end the "mad cow" madness.

Iain Murray is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (www.cei.org), where he specializes in the debate over climate change and the use and abuse of science in the political process.


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