Crashing the USDA's Dog-and-Pony Show

The online free encyclopedia Wikipedia defines "dog-and-pony show" as a public "display that is somewhat pathetically contrived." That's what the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, is convening this Thursday, June 9, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Secretary Johanns will lead a roundtable discussion dominated by the most powerful agricultural lobby organizations in the United States to spread the good news that mad cow disease is no longer a problem in North America. The invited participants include the American Farm Bureau, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Meat Association, the National Milk Producers and the National Renderers Association. Not a single consumer, human health or public interest group was invited to speak, nor were any scientists who research mad cow and related diseases, such as Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner. The USDA hopes to convince the assembled news media that it's time to open the U.S. border to Canadian cattle and time for Japan and Korea to accept U.S. beef and cattle.

There's just one problem with this rosy picture of mad cow disease in North America: it has little or no basis in fact. The steps that the United States and Canada must take to prevent the spread of mad cow disease have not been taken. Instead, lip service and deception have fooled the media and the public, while dangerous animal feeding practices remain routine; hundreds of millions of pounds of slaughterhouse waste are still fed to North American cattle.

Even with the 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in North America, the Bush administration is refusing to take the steps proven to address the problem. Those simple measures have worked well in Europe and Japan. They are: a rigid, complete ban on using rendered slaughterhouse waste such as blood, meat and bonemeal in livestock feed, and the testing millions of cattle a year to ensure food safety. Japan tests 100 percent of its cattle (although U.S. pressure recently resulted in Japan agreeing to waive testing requirements for cattle younger than 20 months). In more than a decade, the United States has tested fewer than 400,000 cattle of a third of a billion cattle slaughtered.

Rather than protect animal and human health from bizarre and always fatal dementia diseases - diseases that can incubate in people invisibly for decades and contaminate the blood supply - the Bush administration is siding with the huge corporations that dominate the cattle industry. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are still allowing slaughterhouse waste in the form of blood, fat and meat and bone meal to be fed to cattle, pigs and other livestock. At the same time, the USDA, FDA and the livestock and animal feeding industries have maintained successful PR campaigns to fool the media and the public into thinking that such feeding practices have been banned.

The dog-and-pony show planned in St. Paul is just one aspect of this deceptive PR. The USDA plans to fly the Secretary of Agriculture into St. Paul and surround him with friendly industry supporters. Everyone will smile for the cameras, making sweeping if unsupportable assurances about the safety of the U.S. meat supply and demanding that the Japanese and Korean governments open their borders to untested U.S. beef weaned on calf milk supplement containing cattle blood.

Nice try Mr. Secretary, but you've got a problem - us.

The Center for Media and Democracy and the Organic Consumers Association are showing up in St. Paul to blow the whistle on this PR stunt. One hour before the show begins, at 8:30 am on Thursday June 9, we're joining with family beef farmer Jim Goodman to hold a news conference and stage a "dump" of the slaughterhouse waste products legally fed to U.S. cattle such as calf food with cattle and pig blood as its protein source. After our event, we'll be attending the USDA's dog-and-pony show, to demand that real measures be put in place to prevent the spread of a horrible fatal dementia among livestock and people.

The Organic Consumers Association will also be presenting Secretary Johanns with a petition signed by over 12,000 Americans, calling for mandatory testing for all cattle before they enter the food chain; banning the feeding of blood, manure, and slaughterhouse waste to livestock; and allowing private U.S. meat plants and producers to test for mad cow disease - something the USDA has made illegal.

We have no illusions about changing the mind of the National Renderers Association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association or Administration officials beholden to such big corporate players. But we hope that by reaching the media with the truth about U.S. mad cow policies, we'll undermine the USDA's propaganda and provide the public with the information it needs to demand fundamental changes in U.S. agricultural and health policies.

In addition, we will reach an international audience, through the Japanese and South Korean media at the event. These countries must continue to demand that the United States stop its dangerous feeding practices and test more cattle before lifting their bans on U.S. beef. It's truly an odd world when the best protection that U.S. consumers have are the policies of other countries. But if Japan and Korea maintain their bans, the U.S. media begins reporting on the reality of the situation, and more U.S. consumers demand to be protected, change will occur.

In the meantime, for those of you who eat beef, remember that while you are not a vegetarian, the animals you eat should be. Ethical family farmers like Jim and Rebecca Goodman are raising organic livestock fed the old fashioned way - without blood, meat and bone meal, animal fat or chicken feces.

Beef - it doesn't have to cause dementia deaths.