A few years ago, whenever the first mad cow scare was, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news. I did, however, notice that steak, even at Kroger, was plentiful and cheap. I ate like a goddamned king all summer long.It was ten years ago that we had the height of the BSE -mad cow disease -scare in Britain. It was my first summer here. Did I avoid British beef? Did I, heck. VolMom, VolBro, the Vol-in-Law (then just Vol-boyfriend) and I watched a House of Lords debate on the BSE crisis in the summer of '96 and then went off for steak dinner. I took advantage of the cheap beef prices which weren't as cheap as they might have been because the British public - after a few cautious weeks - were all taking advantage of the low, low prices too. Domestic beef sales went up (but of course the international market completely fell away).
It's only in the last few days that the French have decided that they'll allow the le rosbif anglais in Frogland again. (Actually it was worse than that - the EU banned Britain from exporting beef anywhere and that ban was lifted last week.)
As the BSE crisis continued and there were culls and bans, it annoyed me a little bit that the US beef industry seemed to be declaring that there was no way that BSE could be found in American cattle. Remember Oprah getting sued by cattlemen for expressing her concerns about the beef supply on air? And here's an article from a couple of years ago on how American cows were still being fed cows - one of the main ways BSE circulates in the cattle population.
The article also points out that the way cattle are slaughtered contributes to the risk. My understanding is that the nasty little BSE prions seem to concentrate in connective tissue and brain and spinal cord. Some types of bolt killing (firing a bolt into the brain of the animal) can spread the brain tissue around the body as the cow is dying.
And that might not be so bad if American slaughter houses operated in a safe way. Remember that book Fast Food Nation? If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Publicised as an attack on McDonald's and other fast food chains, what really struck me were the chapters on slaughtering and packing practices. It was The Jungle all over again. I learned that McDonald's keeps a close eye on its supply chain, so while its burgers may not be especially tasty, they're probably safer than the ones you cook at home from ground beef you buy in US grocery stores.
Fast Food Nation catalogued a range of grisly practices (and that was just dealing with the human workers) and food supply contamination with chemicals and fecal matter. And of course, the Bush administration is a greater friend to organised industry (e.g. Cattlemen) than he is to the consumer. The USDA has been effectively hobbled through a range of cuts and reduction of its statutory powers.
BSE cost the British cattle industry and the taxpayer a fortune. But it was taken seriously, and slaughterhouse (or abattoir in Brit-speak) and cattle feed regulations seem to have tightened up so hard that beef is a reasonably safe choice and the industry has largely recovered.
Tags: BSE, Beef, United States, USDA, Disease, mad cow, Cattle.