The Agriculture Department's announcement yesterday of a ban on the sale of meat from ailing "downer" cattle marked a policy turnabout for the Bush administration, coming only a few weeks after the department and allies in the powerful meat lobby blocked an identical measure in Congress.
Faced with the first case of mad cow disease in this country, the White House and the USDA were scrambling to restore public confidence in the nation's meat supply, encourage foreign governments to resume beef imports and head off a possible political crisis for President Bush.
The ban announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was the answer, and it represented a repudiation of years of industry efforts to limit government intervention in slaughterhouse operations and in shaping the nation's response to the threat of mad cow disease.
'Rise to the challenge'
"We're going to support the actions of the secretary," said a subdued Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, acknowledging that producers had not anticipated such a broad government response. "We're going to have to manage through it as an industry. We think the industry will rise to the challenge."
For years, the politically potent and well-financed cattle and meatpacking industries have held sway in the debate over the practice of slaughtering and marketing non-ambulatory, or downer, cattle. They repeatedly blocked efforts by urban Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans to end the practice -- which provides producers with millions of dollars of profits each year but also represents the biggest potential source of contaminated meat.
An estimated 190,000 sick or injured cattle are shipped to slaughterhouses annually, and only about 5 percent of them are tested for serious illness such as mad cow disease. Just last month, Republican congressional leaders deleted from a pending spending bill a measure banning the slaughter of downer cattle.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a longtime advocate of legislation to ban the slaughter of sick or injured cattle, said the industry has "shot themselves in the hoof" by resisting a necessary safeguard to the food system. With the industry now facing a crisis of consumer confidence and the temporary loss of European and Asian markets, he said, the Agriculture Department "has seen the light, but that's only because they've been struck by lightning."
The ban announced yesterday also gave a lift to animal rights activists and consumer groups who had been consigned to the fringes of the mad cow debate. "We've been pushing this for years," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "I do believe that this can restore consumer confidence in the government's regulatory authority as it stops one of the worst abuses that occurs in the modern livestock production system."
A downer or non-ambulatory cow is unable to stand. Some animals break legs or injure themselves either on farms or on the way to slaughter, but others may be sick or paralyzed. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- mad cow disease -- turns brain tissue spongy and causes animals to stagger and fall. There is no known cure.
The discovery last week of mad cow disease in a downer milk cow in Washington state suddenly brought hard questions for both the federal government and the meat industry about the regulatory system and safeguards for warding off the threat of mad cow disease.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2000 and 2002 asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to check feed companies' compliance with a Food and Drug Administration regulation prohibiting protein pellets made from the remains of cattle and other ruminants from being fed to cattle. Twice the GAO found serious lapses.
In 1997, the Center for Science in the Public Interest began calling for stronger controls to prevent brain and spinal cord tissue from contaminated meat separated from beef bones through a decade-old technology called "advanced meat recovery," or AMR. The USDA's own survey this year found that 35 percent of product samples tested in 2002 contained "unacceptable nervous tissues." Yesterday, Veneman announced further restrictions on the tissues that can be included in AMR products.
Power of meat lobby
Democrats said the recent failure to enact a ban on the slaughter of downer animals highlighted the tight linkages between the Bush administration, congressional Republicans and the meat lobby. In 2000, the livestock industry contributed $4.7 million to political campaigns, of which 79 percent went to Republicans.
"Every time you talk about something the government could do, you had opposition," Durbin said. "First the group being regulated was opposed, then the lobbyists and congressional committees and agencies in the federal government. Anything I tried to do was blocked."
The congressional committees overseeing agriculture programs and meat inspection are also dominated by lawmakers from cattle states such as Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Complaints were largely ignored by the public and news organizations when they occurred, but they have been receiving close scrutiny now. And industry spokesmen, who used to dismiss opponents with the throwaway line "there's never been a case of mad cow disease in the United States," were having trouble finding a different argument.
Since 1992, the industry has consistently opposed legislation to ban the practice of sending injured or sick cattle to the slaughterhouse. The chief advocates of the legislation, Ackerman and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), initially were drawn to the subject out of concern for animal rights and worry about the possibility of diseased meat reaching supermarkets, restaurants and schools. Indeed, the USDA banned the use of downer beef in the public school lunch program, but until yesterday the agency allowed that meat to be processed and sold to the public at large.
This year, Akaka and Ackerman thought they might have the votes, legislative aides said. A Canadian cow had died in May from mad cow disease, presumably increasing the possibility that Congress would look more favorably on new controls. The Senate approved the measure on a voice vote as part of an Agriculture Department spending bill for fiscal 2004, but it failed on the House floor, 202 to 199, after a vigorous debate July 14.
Cattle industry advocates, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), the ranking committee Democrat, argued that maintaining the old system was essential because it offered the only possibility of a USDA veterinarian spotting an animal with mad cow disease. "If we require that downed animals are euthanized on the farm and never get to that point in the processing system, we are going to drive this whole process literally underground," Goodlatte said.
But Ackerman and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, warned that the industry was being shortsighted in fighting the measure, and that it would take only one case of mad cow disease in the United States to send the industry into a tailspin. "How does it help them when you destroy consumer confidence?" Kaptur asked yesterday.
The Agriculture spending bill eventually became part of a larger spending package, and the fate of the Senate-passed measure on downer cattle ultimately was left to House and Senate Republican leaders, according to Kaptur and other Democrats who said they were excluded from the decision making. A House GOP aide insisted the Democrats were part of the deliberations. The provision was dropped from the final version.