Posted on Thursday, May 28, 2009

Keeping food supply safe requires strong system, vigilance

Source of Article:

Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board


This editorial appears in the Yakima Herald-Republic on May 28, 2009.

If you think the federal government has taken the steps needed to limit future disease outbreaks among livestock, think again. The national program to trace livestock is going nowhere fast, and the ability to track Canadian cattle, which led to the first case of mad cow disease in a Mabton farm, is deeply flawed.

So far, only 36 percent of the nation's estimated 1.4 million farm "premises," which take in farms with multiple locations, have registered for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's tracking program. Started in 2004, the program's goal is to target an animal's location within 48 hours after a disease is discovered. In theory, farmers were to have voluntarily registered with their states by January 2008. Mandatory reporting for beef, pork and poultry producers was supposed to go into effect a year later.

Those deadlines have come and gone.

So to help find out why the process is so gummed up, federal officials are holding seven listening sessions across the country. One took place last week in Pasco. Comments there ranged from scathing to scalding.

Several characterized the regulations as nothing more than bureaucratic suffocation while another argued the government should focus on preventing livestock diseases rather than tracking it through a $119.4 million program.

Tracing animals took on added urgency in December 2003 when mad cow disease turned up in a Mabton dairy cow. The cow's origin was traced to Canada, but officials were never able to locate the diseased cow's herd, which may have eaten the same tainted food. That is critical since the only known way for cattle to get mad cow disease is by eating feed containing certain tissues from infected animals.

While fears of mad cow disease still persist in Canadian beef, the USDA has also failed to keep tabs on hundreds of Canadian cattle coming into the U.S. That's the conclusion of the department's inspector general.

The report, which was released earlier this month, revealed that hundreds of cattle -- no one is sure of the exact number -- were allowed to enter the U.S. without proper inspection records. That means we have no assurances that healthy cattle are indeed crossing the border into this country. Last month, Canada reported finding its 13th case of mad cow disease.

These developments do not bode well for our cattle industry. When mad cow disease showed up in Mabton, producers suffered a big financial setback after a number of countries banned the import of U.S. beef.

Being able to limit the spread of mad cow and other diseases is crucial. However, we do not support the absence of federal oversight that a cattleman from Utah championed during the Pasco meeting. What goes on in a farmer's pasture, he said, is nobody's business: "Freedom restricted is freedom lost."

Freedom, though, carries a price, and that includes keeping track of animals that are earmarked for this nation's food chain. Right now, it's clear the current tracking system is flawed.

That doesn't mean we should abandon the effort entirely. Protecting this nation's food supply demands vigilance, whether it's at the border or in someone's pasture.


* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Michael Shepard, Bob Crider, Spencer Hatton and Karen Troianello.



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