Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pardon My Cynicism

Mad Cow disease is one of TheWife's soapbox issues, so this wasn't news to me, but it is absolutely stunning. A small cattle ranch, Creek Stone Farms, wants to test all of its cows for Mad Cow disease and is being prevented by the government. Be clear, the government is not only against mandatory testing of all cows for a disease that causes the equivalent of early on-set Alzheimer's, but it's opposing a farm that wants to voluntarily do it on their own. The USDA is telling them that they may not test their cows to see if they are safe before sending them to market. Cold Creek sued and won, but the government has made clear their intention to tie the case up in the courts as long as possible in order to keep Cold Creek from trying to protect the health of Americans.

Why is this happening? Part of it is the USDA's mixed mission which in which it is simultaneously a regulatory body charged with overseeing the quality and safety of agricultural products and also set up as an advocate for American agricultural producers. It is supposed to regulate the people it is supposed to promote. Part of it is the influence of the beef industry. They are fighting every step tooth and nail and have lots of money and friends in powerful places. And part of it is this administration that cares more about corporate profits than it does about protecting the well-being of American citizens.

Over at DailyKos, KargoX has it right that part of the motivation to fight it is that if one farm tests, then market forces will demand that everyone test. If you are going to the store to pick up ground beef and one is a mere three cents a pound more expensive (the cost of universal testing) but guaranteed not to kill your family with a terrible brain wasting disease, most people would gladly pay the extra three quarters of one penny for each quarter pound hamburger. Allowing one farm to voluntarily do the right thing would create a de facto regulation of universal testing because that is what consumers would demand. But, as Kargo X points out, it is quite fascinating to see these right wing champions of lassez faire free market capitalism suddenly opposing what the market wants, trying to governmentally dictate what goes on in the marketplace. The Bush folks seem perfectly happy with socialism when it means higher corporate profits.

But the question is, what's the real worry? Noises are made about feasibility. But Japan and Europe already do it, so that excuse is a substance that cattle farmers are used to shoveling. It could be the sort of knee-jerk reaction corporate industries always seem to have when it comes to common sense measures that concern the health of their customers. Car companies fought against seat belts, against reconfiguring door latches so they wouldn't pop open in an accident, and many other small features that they knew would only save innocent lives. Why? Look at the oil industry, the tobacco industry, the health care industry, you see time and time again these powerhouses doing everything they can to make sure they don't have to do the morally and pragmatically right thing. But there's more to it here, it seems to me.

They say that they are worried about false positives. Here it is. No test is perfect, it will always miss some cases and wrongly point to problems with others where no problem exists. This is the important point, although it isn't false positives they are really concerned with. False positives are easy to cull. Every positive gets re-tested and re-re-tested. The chances of a false positive coming up wrongly positive in retests is incredibly minuscule.

My cynical hypothesis is that they are really worried about real positives. If every cow is tested cases may pop up and if more than case is reported to have been found, the media coverage would cause the bottom would drop out of the beef market altogether. It is already hurting because of concerns about cholesterol and heart disease; this would be disastrous. So, rather than do what they need to do to make sure there is absolutely no chance that this disease could be there, instead they want to make sure we don't have the facts about the beef that they are serving to our loved ones. The disease, BSE, is slow to develop and looks a whole lot like Alzheimer's and so would be completely misdiagnosed in most cases and even when correctly assessed, would not be traceable back to its source. It is a crime which likely would not be discovered and for which they could not be fingered, even if you had the body of the victim. So they are not worried about mad cow, they are just worried about us worrying about mad cow. You could eliminate the worry by eliminating the chance that it is out there or you could do what they and the Bush administration prefer, try to eliminate the worry by sweeping it under the rug. Cold Creek is that annoying little kid who insists on reminding the teacher that she forgot to give us homework, the Republicans here are the bullies who rough the kid up on the playground after class for it. Shame on them.