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Monday, August 23, 2004

Terrorburgers 

The cognitive-dissonance meter is clanging loudly in our ears, making it extremely difficult to concentrate, and so we would very much appreciate it if someone could help us reconcile this --
At the Wayne Farms poultry plant in Decatur, Ala., armed guards patrol the grounds, searching for any threat to the tens of thousands of chickens.

In Porterville, Calif., dairy farmer Tom Barcellos recently installed video cameras in his milking barns to keep watch over his 1,200 cows.

Nothing seems farther from the front lines of terrorism than the vast American hinterlands, yet since the Sept. 11attacks, they have been drawn into the amorphous battle.

The threat is agroterrorism — the use of microbes and poisons to shake confidence in the U.S. food supply and devastate the $201-billion farm economy . . . .

Diseases such as swine fever or citrus greening can spread across the land silently. A single outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could require the destruction of millions of cows and result in a worldwide ban of U.S. cattle exports for years.
No known specific intelligence has linked terrorists to attempts to compromise the food supply, federal officials said, but concerns were sparked after investigators discovered that the Sept. 11 hijackers had explored the use of crop dusters. Last year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said U.S. forces found "hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents" in caves in Afghanistan once occupied by Al Qaeda militants . . . .

Beyond the economic damage, the unfamiliarity of an agroterrorism attack alone could sow fear in a country whose citizens rarely think about the safety of their food supply.

"Killing all these animals and burning or burying them is exactly what terrorists want everyone to see," said Breeze, the former USDA official.
-- with this:
Creekstone Farms Premium Beef is a small producer of high-quality beef in Kansas. But it's making a big point about mad cow disease. It wants to privately test all of the cattle it slaughters for the illness, which can cause a fatal brain disease in humans who eat infected meat. The way Creekstone Farms sees it, 100% testing would reassure U.S customers. The company also says it is talking with Japan about restarting exports there, where total testing is required.

But the firm has run into surprising obstacles: from the federal government, which has pledged to do everything possible to detect the disease, and from the meat industry, which has scrambled to keep consumer confidence since December. That's when the first U.S. case of mad cow was found in a Washington cow imported from Canada.

Their reasoning is as confounding as government foot-dragging over approving private testing. And it ill-serves confused customers who are looking for stronger assurances that the meat they buy is safe.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently does not allow such private testing for mad cow disease. And it claims that a new government testing system it approved this month is perfectly adequate. More than 10 times the number of cattle will be tested for mad cow under the new system, but the government still will be testing less than 1% of the 37 million cattle slaughtered in the U.S. each year. That falls far short of the 100% testing Creekstone Farms is proposing and Japan provides.

Other beef producers complain that Creekstone Farms' 100% testing plans would set an expensive precedent. They worry that consumers might be misled into thinking an untested cut of beef isn't safe. But food producers ranging from organic growers to free-range farmers already market their products based on the idea that food produced in healthier ways or with added safeguards is worth paying for. Creekstone Farms' proposal taps into the same logic.

Other beef producers and the USDA say going beyond the new system is unnecessary. But hundreds of seemingly healthy cattle in Europe have tested positive for mad cow disease.
So, if we have this right, the important thing is consumer confidence in the safety of our food supply; the actual safety of our food supply is of incidental concern. To summarize:

A putative terrorist plot to scare Americans into thinking their food is unsafe -- BAD.

Food made unsafe by standard USDA-sanctioned meat-industry practices (feeding cattle blood to cattle; feeding rendered downer cows to chicken and pigs) -- A-OK.

Voluntary, privately-funded, universal "rapid testing" that might prevent food made unsafe by standard meat-industry practices from coming to market -- BAD.

Warning the public about potential health hazards of the food we eat, at possible expense to large companies and powerful lobbies -- BAD.

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