Digest: USDA plays chicken with BSE, UK farmers vs. grocers, more

Time to get mad over mad-cow missteps: The USDA is proposing to allow Canadian cattle older than 30 months to be imported into the United States, and U.S. ranchers are pissed. The Cattle Network reports that a Big Meat representative testified before Congress that the “USDA’s action will make the United States a dumping ground for beef and cattle banned from major international markets...Who benefits from these actions? Not U.S. consumers; not the U.S. producer." What's the beef with Canadian cattle? Well, the country keeps turning up new cases of mad-cow disease despite its 1997 ban on feeding meat and bone meal to these herbivorous animals. As far as we know, no one's actually found a cause-and-effect relationship between that abhorrent practice, faulty prions, and bovine spongiform encelaphopathy (BSE) disease. Meanwhile, the Seattle P-I says that the only mad cow testing laboratory in the Pacific Northwest will close March 1, because U.S. incidence of the disease is so low it's just not needed anymore. How low? Of 759,000 animals tested, only three have been found to be infected, says the P-I. We'd like to point out that there are 97.1 million cattle in this country, making that a sample rate of less than 1 percent. Other countries are understandably skittish about importing U.S. beef, and yet the USDA won't even allow Creekstone Ranch to do its own BSE testing. Now that the mad-cow scare is a few years old, the USDA's attitude to consumer safety in this case seems to be: Shut up and eat your burgers. But cooking the hell out of them only works with E. coli, not BSE.

Sustainability begins at home: There's a bit of a sustainability smackdown going on in the UK. The government wants to work with food producers to create a labeling system showing the environmental impact of each item — cool, yes, but given how hard the U.S. organic standards were to codify, we can't wait to see how they'll get agreement on these criteria. In response, a farmer spokesperson said it was vital that supermarkets realised that the farmers who supplied them needed to be profitable, and this meant paying them fairly for their produce, dairy, and meat. We have to agree — since when did paying for the actual cost to grow something become a "premium"? Guardian (UK)

Potentially toxic fertilizer: Canada has approved a new type of fertilizer that some fear could release a suspected cancer-causing chemical into the food supply. The fertilizier is made of tiny pellets of plant nutrients encapsulated in a polyester-polyurethane coating, which releases nitrogen slowly (good) but could break down in the soil into the toxic chemical MDE (very bad). Why don't they just coat the pellets in corn starch? Globe and Mail

All the cool kids are planting it: More on an anthropologist's research into cotton-planting practices in the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh, India, one of the nation's key cotton-growing areas. As Andrew Leonard alredy wrote in Salon, the research shows that farmers chose to plant genetically modified cottonseed just because their neighbors were, not because they tested it and found the yields better. Washington U. Record

I'll Umbra for ya: Our favorite advice column tackles the question of which way to boil water for tea uses the least energy. Grist

Ocean-friendly fish: Michael Boots, director of the Seafood Choices Alliance, answers some basic questions from Grist editors; now's your chance to ask all those hard ones about seafood-eating ethics. Grist

Hungary for organic: Eastern Europeans are increasingly buying — and growing — organic food. Poland and the Czech Republic have the biggest internal markets for organic produce, followed by Hungary. FreshPlaza

Milk dropping: Sales of organic milk are slowing in the UK. Telegraph (UK)

Touring the food system: Not much new here, but this snappy feature about the U.S. food chain and E. coli outbreaks by a veteran travel writer is fun to read anyway. Consumer Affairs

I moo: Actress Elizabeth Hurley is getting married, and she's asked her guests to buy her an Old Gloucester spotted pig and other livestock to build up her 400-acre organic farm. Independent (UK)

"Mulesing"? Ewww!: The Australian government plans to change federal law so that sheep farmers can sue for damages over PETA's campaign to prevent the sale of Australian wool. Business Week (AP)

Hmong farmers hobbled: Fresno's Southeast Asian farmers were especially hard hit by this winter's freeze, and have no crop insurance or savings to fall back on. The city is stepping in to help. Los Angeles Times

Fat-free floating: Crystal Cruises will no longer use trans fats in its on-board cooking. Detroit Free Press

Made with human hair?: Spying a huge potential market, fashion gets environmentally responsible. But with no third-party certified labels, anything can be called "green." Bloomberg

One Responseto “Digest: USDA plays chicken with BSE, UK farmers vs. grocers, more”

  1. Marc says:

    It's easy to see why BSE is ignored at USDA. The USDA's Strategic Plan for 2005-2010 contains the following Vision Statement and Strategic Goals:

    ---
    "Vision Statement: To be a dynamic organization that is able to enhance agricultural trade, improve farm economies and quality of life in rural America, protect the Nation’s food supply, improve the Nation’s nutrition, and protect and enhance the Nation’s natural resource base and environment."

    Strategic Goal 1: Enhance International Competiveness [sic] of American Agriculture
    Strategic Goal 2: Enhance the Competiveness [sic] and Sustainability of Rural Farm Economics
    Strategic Goal 3: Support Increased Economic Opportunities and Improved Quality of Life in Rural America
    Strategic Goal 4: Enhance Protection and Safety of the Nation's Agriculture and Food Supply
    Strategic Goal 5: Improve the Nation's Health and Nutrition
    Strategic Goal 6: Protect and Enhance the Nation's Natural Resource Base and Environment
    ---

    Note that in each list, food safety is not at the top. The top items are about revenue, trade and profit. To be sure, there is no indication in the plan that the goals are prioritized, but I doubt that these goals were ordered randomly. The top planners at the USDA probably made the choice to put trade at the top and food safety a few ticks down the lists.

    However, one could make that case that a more vigorous testing program and reforms in the cattle industry could show the world that U.S. meat is BSE free and lead to both greater trade and safer food.

    Link to the strategic plan: http://www.ocfo.usda.gov/usdasp/usdasp.htm