A Beef with the USDA

Some folks might think that it is weird choice for me to illustrate a post about the recent revelation of a second case of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) in the United States with photographs of the steak we had for dinner here last night. I mean, shouldn’t I be eschewing beef, and running out to become a vegan the way that author and former cattle rancher, Howard Lyman (most famous to for his controversial appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show back in 1996 that reaped a lawsuit against Oprah by the National Cattleman’s Association) has done?

Well, no, not necessarily. That is to say–if folks feel better eating a vegan diet, then they are welcome to do that, but I am more into a moderate, varied diet that includes a great deal of vegetables and grains, but does not exclude animal products, including beef.

See, here is the deal. I agree with Kate at Accidental Hedonist, when she says that panic about the US beef supply is not yet warranted, but anger at the USDA’s handling of BSE is. She points out quite correctly that the USDA has implimented exactly none of the World Health Organization’s guidelines to help curb the spread of BSE. Testing standards for BSE are laughable and the materials that are allowed to go into the making of supplemental cattle feed (which at least no longer are allowed to include bovine brain or nerve tissue) are dubious at best and horrifying at worst. The number of cattle undergoing testing for BSE is still miniscule in comparison to the number of cows which are slaughtered for food. Essentially, what the USDA and the FDA are doing is kowtowing to the demands of the demands of the powerful agriculture and trade lobbies which do not really want to change their factory farming methods which result in higher profit margins in order to serve the needs of Americans for a safe food supply.

There are some who claim that the USDA’s foot dragging on the BSE issue is a massive conspiracy to cover-up the “fact” that BSE is a problem in US. While that contention cannot currently be proven, I do find it likely that political expediency and profit motive are getting in the way of the USDA putting together a coherent, workable method of safeguarding the US meat supply from BSE. Parke Wilde over at the excellent blog US Food Policy, posted an AP story outlining the political machinations at the root of Friday’s announcement that a second cow in the US has been confirmed with BSE.

Kate suggests that those of us who are concerned should call and write our elected representatives and nag them about the issue, and I completely agree. In addition to bugging your Congresspersons, you can also try irritating Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns by phone or by email. Just keep your queries polite, succinct and to the point, and don’t just contact these folks once. Call or write them back, and let them know you are still thinking about the issue. Make a big deal out of the fact that you vote, if you do. And when you do write or call them, it wouldn’t hurt if you could show some knowledge about BSE, its effects, and how it is transmitted.

Which brings me to my next point: do you know how hard it is to find unbiased information on BSE?

It is nearly impossible.

Go type “BSE information” into Google, and then look at the top ten sites listed. The first site listed, BSEInfo.org, is copyrighted by Cattlemen’s Beef Board & National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. And surprisingly, even though a second cow has been confirmed to have BSE in the US, the very first topic, “About U.S. Beef Safety,” states “Because of progressive steps taken by the U.S. government over the past 15 years, all U.S. beef is safe from BSE.”

I think that they need to update their website.

The second website listed is copyrighted by The University of Illinois at Urbana-Chapaign and is actually a decent source of unbiased information on BSE. The next two websites are divisions of the USDA and the FDA, and are gateways into rabbit-warrens of doublespeak and poor website design. Besides, after reading about the political shenanigans involved in the testing of the second BSE cow in the US, I can’t imagine anyone could consider any governmental agency involved in overseeing the cattle industry as being anything resembling unbiased.

Then, there are a couple of sites based in the UK, and they give pretty good information. Then, there is the CDC site, which once again, being a governmental agency, is probably not unbiased.

The last two sites of the top ten Google sites for BSE information are the websites of the Iowa Beef Center and the American Association of Meat Processors.

Seven out of ten of the top sites found on Google when one seeks information on BSE represent either the U.S. government or beef producers, neither of which are likely to be what I would call reliable sources for unbiased factual information on BSE in the United States.

So, where does one go for information?

I am rather fond of this site, Priondata.org. It does get a bit technical, but that is fine with me. It does have areas set up specifically to serve as clearinghouses of information for non-scientifically minded sorts such as journalists, so really, lay-persons should be able to understand what they are talking about. It includes information on the latest research, (which includes tests on a virus which appears to kill prions in mice) as well as news stories on BSE and other prion diseases.
But other than arming oneself with knowledge, and communicating our displeasure with how our government has handled the issue thus far, what else can we do? Should we stop eating beef? Should we run away screaming from hamburgers? Should we become vegans and say to hell with it all and throw in the towel?

Well, all of those are very personal decisions that we each have to make, but I have no intention of ceasing my consumption of beef altogether. For one thing, the likelihood of a prion disease being transmitted to me, even if our meat supply was rife with BSE is very small.

For another thing, I gave up buying grocery store beef several years ago. My reasons for doing so had little to do with BSE, and much to do with my own personal ethics and political beliefs.

I took to buying all of my beef, pork, lamb, goat and veal from local farmers. Now, I buy all of my chicken locally as well.

And to be honest, what really caused me to make this choice in changing how I ate was not ethics, or health or politics. It was flavor.

The meat that I am getting from local organic farmers who pasture raise their animals and feed them on grass tastes better than anything I have ever bought in a grocery store. It tastes like the meat I grew up eating on my grandparents’ farm.

The fact that it costs slightly more is immaterial to me; I just eat less meat. But the meat that I am eating is of such a high quality, I don’t miss it. In fact, I relish it all the more because it is more precious to me, and tastes better.

And I feel pretty confident about the meat that I am buying. I know the farmers, I know thier farming practices, and I know the slaughterhouses and how they work. These folks would never have sent a downer cow (a cow that is too sick to walk) to the slaughterhouse to be chopped up and put into the human food chain. They are just as disgusted as I am with the practices of factory farming that include feeding herbivores feed rendered from dead animals.

There are smaller farmers out there, producing good wholesome beef, even near the larger cities. And I suspect that as demand rises for these products more farmers will take up the slack.

If you are interested in finding alternative sources for beef, there are a few ways to go about it. Check this website, LocalHarvest, for listings of farmers, farmer’s markets and CSA’s near you. It is a meant to serve as a national database to connect consumers with local food producers, and has grown greatly in scope over the past several years. Other websites meant to connect consumers with farmers are cropping up, such as Food and Farm Connections. These sites can give you places in your area to start looking for small local producers of grass fed beef and other safely and ethically-raised animals.

Or go to your local farmer’s market. If you don’t see anyone there selling beef, ask around. If you cannot find anyone doing direct marketing of beef to consumers this year, if enough people ask, someone will step up to the plate and start offering meat next year.

Sure, looking for local beef producers means going out of your way, and yeah, it is more expensive. But, it is a positive step that you can take if you are spooked by the recent stories on BSE in the United States.

Besides–if you do get a bite of a steak like the one we had last night–I think that your taste buds will make up your mind for you. After tasting really good quality meat, it is hard to go back to the stuff they sell at the local Safeway, which may or may not be so safe.

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