Thursday, January 15, 2004

Much of the public’s attention of late has been focused on the announcement of the discovery of a singular case of mad cow disease. Understandably, this revelation caused a stir among Americans, who as a country consume beef more than 80 million times each day. Additionally, there are economic concerns. The U.S. beef industry generates an estimated $175 billion in economic activity and includes more than a million businesses, farms and ranches.

Having spent the first 42 years of my life in a family dairy business, this BSE event captured my attention immediately. As a member of Congress, I have a responsibility to assure appropriate action is taken to ensure food safety. But I also want to make sure innocent farmers and ranchers do not become the scapegoat in this matter.

Unlike many other animal diseases, mad cow disease is not contagious; rather it originates from the ingestion of contaminated animal byproducts. Fortunately, mad cow disease infectivity is confined to the brain and central nervous system in cattle, not the red meat, which greatly limits the public health risk in the United States. And according to current science, BSE is not transmitted animal-to-animal, so other herd members are not at risk.

The British were widely criticized for not taking quick, decisive action with their mad cow disease outbreak that began in the mid-1980s. In the end, that outbreak on the European continent caused the deaths of approximately 150 people and almost totally decimated the British beef and dairy industries.

Here in the United States, Secretary Anne Veneman and the Department of Agriculture took immediate action to address the issue. Health officials and the public were quickly notified of the situation, and action was taken to trace the meat supply, the animal’s identity and history, and assessment of further risk. More than five tons of meat were recalled that might have contained beef from the diseased cow. The other 81 Canadian animals imported with the infected cow are being accounted for and quarantined.

Within a week, Mrs. Veneman announced additional steps to safeguard the nation’s supply of beef, including: banning all “downer” cattle for human consumption, issuing a hold on the entire carcass of any animal tested for BSE until a negative test is received, and meat processing and accounting practices to further assure safety. Mrs. Veneman also announced that she is appointing an international panel of experts to assess the U.S. response and offer additional suggestions for enhancements.

While much work needs to be done, more information gathered and actions taken, I think the reaction to this incident thus far by our nation’s experts and scientists should give the public reassurance that sound science and policy are managing this situation.

The key to resolving a situation such as this is accurate animal identification. I was especially pleased to see among Mrs. Veneman’s action items, a plan to implement a verifiable system of animal identification that has been under development by the USDA for more than a year. Such a system will prove invaluable in quickly dealing with any future situation.

I think it is worth mentioning the situation that the million or so farmers and ranchers find themselves in right now. No one has a greater vested interest in a safe, quality product than do the farmers who produce it.Their whole life is dependent upon it, and perhaps generations of their family before and after them, too. After years of poor markets, cattle prices have been strong recently, helped out by such unpredictable factors like the popularity of the Atkins diet.

America enjoys the most abundant, affordable and safe food supply in the world. And, it is worth noting that we have farmers and ranchers to thank for that, along with an effective local, state and national system of controls and inspections. In America, when we bite into a burger, we have high confidence that it is safe.Farmers understand their ability to survive financially depends on consumer confidence in the safety of their product.

That is why the cattlemen and the processors are working with government officials and scientists to resolve this problem and preserve confidence with the American consumer. I have great faith in their ability to accomplish this task and great faith in the common sense of the American people to keep a level head while we address this situation.

Rep. Bob Beauprez is a Republican from Colorado. He is a former dairy farmer and community banker.

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