The Real Reasons to be Mad about Beef


By Michele Simon and Richard Ganis


Originally published on Ascribe Newswire, January 22, 2022


With the recent confirmation of the first case of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States, Americans are being barraged by pronouncements from government and industry spokespeople, urging us to continue to enjoy our Big Macs and rump roasts, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s meat supply is as safe and wholesome as ever. Beef producers have been rehearsing responses to a potential American BSE crisis since the mid-1980s, when the devastating illness emerged in England’s cattle herds and developed into an epidemic among cows fed recycled meat and bone meal. It has since been linked to the deaths of more than 120 Britains from the related brain-wasting syndrome known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That self-interested corporations like Burger King and McDonald’s are working with trade groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to spin the mad cow discovery as an anomalous, “isolated” incident is hardly surprising. Of greater concern is the fact that Americans are being lulled into a false sense of security about the safety of U.S. meat by their own federal government.


Just before Christmas, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Ann Veneman announced that she planned to serve beef at her holiday meal, and counseled Americans to do the same. Heeding the secretary’s admonitions, President Bush declared on New Year’s Day that he “ate beef today, and will continue to eat beef.” Since then, the agriculture department has repeatedly advised us not to worry, as the risk to human health is minimal. Perhaps that’s true, but can we really trust the reassurances of an agency whose top officials — including chief of staff Dale Moore and press secretary Alisa Harrison — are former employees of the beef industry lobby?


Clearly, the department’s cozy connections to American beef producers do not inspire confidence in its ability to oversee the BSE problem. Nor does its spotty record as a guardian of public health. Under the USDA’s watch, numerous contamination scares and recalls have plagued the nation’s meat supply, a longstanding complaintto the frustration of food safety organizations.


The agency’s performance as a dispenser of sound nutrition advice is also  leaves much to be desiredtroubling. Its well-known Food Guide Pyramid, for example, directs Americans to consume meat and dairy products daily, despite mounting scientific evidence of their contribution to a host of increasingly common health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Regrettably, we’re unlikely to see significant improvements to these recommendations anytime soon, given that most of the members of the current advisory committee charged with updating the USDA’s dietary guidelines for 2005 have extensive ties to the meat, dairy, egg, sugar, and processed food industries.


The basic problem is that the USDA operates under an inherent conflict of interest. On the one hand, it’s charged with bolstering the interests of American agriculture through subsidies, promotional programs, and bailouts — including almost daily purchases of fat-laden surplus beef products that get dumped on the poor through the National School Lunch Program. At the same time, the agriculture department is responsible for representing consumers’ needs via meat safety rules, nutrition guidelines, and food assistance programs. The USDA’s ability to promote the consumption of healthful foods and administer a safe, sustainable system of food production is seriously compromised by its mandate to advance the profit objectives of large industrial food corporations, leaving American consumers underserved and under-protected.


The presence of BSE in U.S. cattle poses a real and serious threat to public health, and vigorous measures, beyond those already announced by the agriculture department, should be taken to control its spread, beyond those already announced by the agriculture department. However, current concern about the mad cow problem should not distract us from what is surely an even greater danger: the wave of health problems now sweeping the country thanks in large part to the efforts of industry and government efforts, which have  to encouraged Americans to consume an unhealthful meat- and dairy-centeredbased diet,  when science indicates that eating more despite the growing body of evidence pointing to the benefits of moving whole, unprocessed plant-based foods isto the center of the platekey to good health.


Only when the USDA finds its way out of the pockets of the powerful industries it’s responsible for regulating will it be able to tell the American public the truth — about both food safety and good nutrition.


Michele Simon is a lawyer and founder and director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California. Richard Ganis is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.


Michele Simon is a lawyer and founder and director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, CAalifornia. Richard Ganis is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.