I’m not surprised that we’ve identified a case of mad-cow disease in the United States. With the number of cattle we have, it was bound to happen sometime. We should probably begin by saying thanks to a novelist named Upton Sinclair and his most famous book, The Jungle.
A century ago, Sinclair wrote about the meatpacking industry in Chicago. He told the fictional story of one Jurgis Rudkus, an impoverished immigrant from Lithuania who discovered that an innocent faith in the American dream isn’t enough to sustain him against the evils of industrial capitalism.
On one level, The Jungle was a flop. It did not achieve Sinclair’s main goal of convincing the U.S. public to embrace socialism. And that’s a good thing!
But the book wasn’t really a failure. Not even close. In an era without food regulations, The Jungle caused a huge uproar with its vivid depictions of meat processing. Sinclair showed how everything from tubercular beef to poisoned rats was packaged as food for human consumption. In one sensational incident, he described a worker falling into a vat and becoming Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard–sort of like Soylent Green before its time.
In response to The Jungle, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. This was the forerunner to our own current Food and Drug Administration.
Most journalists would be thrilled to see their writing have such an enormous impact. But Sinclair, an unrepentant socialist, was disappointed. “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said.
By my lights, America’s response to Sinclair was perfect. We recognized a problem and came up with a solution that went far enough but didn’t go too far.
I hope we can accomplish the same thing today, as we confront the problem of mad-cow disease in the United States. Our first goal must be avoiding an over-reaction. How long before some advocacy group demands a federal law mandating vegetarianism?
We should begin by turning to science. We know that mad-cow disease–the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or BSE)–affects only the central nervous system. It’s not known to infect whole cuts of beef, which means that there’s virtually no chance of contracting the human form of BSE from eating steak.
“One can derive a fair bit of comfort from statistics,” said Dr. Fred Cohen, a cow-disease expert at the University of California at San Francisco, in the New York Times. “Put the question into context. When there were 60,000 to 80,000 infected cows in the U.K., approximately 150 people out of 60 million developed the disease.”
Cohen added this important observation: “One cow is not likely to translate into any cases.”
Of course, there’s always the possibility that another BSE cow will be found. Our food inspectors are looking into the matter right now, and we should have faith in their work. After all, the fact that we’ve identified an isolated case of mad-cow disease demonstrates that our system of food regulations is working.
Japan, Korea, Mexico and a dozen or so other countries almost immediately turned a “thumbs down” on American beef – just like they did, along with the US, earlier this year when one cow tested positive in Canada. These trading partners need to look very hard, very quickly at how we are handling this situation. International trade in beef needs to resume after the initial negative reaction is overcome and consumers are reassured that the meat they are eating is safe.
In the meantime we must proceed with caution and not over react. Following the outbreak of mad-cow disease in Britain, the European public turned food safety into a fetish. Today, the EU’s frustrating hostility to genetically enhanced products is one very harmful legacy of that experience.
The fear of biotech foods grew so large that the Europeans even convinced the governments of several African countries not to distribute biotech enhanced corn to people dying from starvation. This has nothing to do with science and common sense. It has everything to do with ideology, special-interest politics, and irrational fear.
Recently, an earthquake killed an estimated 40,000 people in Iran. Thousands more have been left homeless and hungry. In response to this humanitarian crisis, the international community is rushing in with aid workers, medicine, and food. If there’s any biotech enhanced corn aboard the relief flights, let’s hope that nobody complains about its safety. People around the world eat it every day. I don’t believe hungry Iranians will turn a “thumbs down”.
But, if anybody objects, I’ve got a story idea for a new generation of muckraking novelists.
Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.