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The Chicago Tribune reports that the inspector general at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has concluded that despite concerns about Canadian cattle afflicted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, the USDA “has failed to properly track hundreds of Canadian cattle coming into the United States.”

According to the story, “An audit, completed in March but only recently made public, said that some of the imported cattle did not have proper identification or health records despite federal regulations requiring them. The audit did not say how many cattle were improperly brought into the U.S. and inspector general spokesman Paul Feeney said auditors are not sure of that number. The report said that a lack of records meant that ‘it cannot be determined’ whether shipments other than those discovered ‘have bypassed inspection or whether this is a systemic problem.’ About 1 million cattle were imported into the U.S. from Canada in the fiscal year ending in September 2006, the period covered by the audit.”

It is believed that people who eat meat that comes from a BSE-infected cow can contract a human variant on this disease, which is fatal.

The Tribune writes: “When mad cow was first discovered in Canada in 2003, the USDA cut off all Canadian cattle imports, as did many other countries. But despite years of precautions, Canada continues to discover cases in which cows have BSE. In June, Canada discovered its 13th BSE case. The U.S. also discovered a case of mad cow in late 2003. It was found in a Washington state dairy cow that had been imported from Canada. Two more U.S. cases of the disease have since been confirmed — one Texas-bred cow and one in Alabama whose origin is not known. The American beef industry also suffered a financial setback after many countries banned U.S. beef. The USDA began testing suspect cattle in 2004, and about 400,000 cattle a year were tested. But in 2006 top USDA officials argued that the risk of mad cow disease was minimal, and testing was scaled back to about 40,000 head a year. About 97 million head of cattle are in the U.S. In 2005, the Agriculture Department began to allow imports of Canadian cattle, which are cheaper than U.S. cattle, in part because so many countries prohibited importing Canadian beef. There were import restrictions, though. The USDA first allowed only Canadian cattle younger than 30 months old, since mad cow is believed to fully afflict only older cattle. But in November the department also began to allow older cattle, arguing that no new mad cow cases have been discovered in the U.S. since 2006 and that safeguards were in place to minimize the risk.”

KC's View:
The inspector general may not be able to say whether there is a systemic problem, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that there is one – and it seems to exist at USDA, which rarely seems to do anything to prove that it has its act together regarding mad cow disease.

The USDA response to mad cow problems always seems to have been to say “it is a Canadian issue,” but now we find out that it isn’t even doing a good job tracking Canadian cattle coming into the US.

Something has to give here. And I’m beginning to wonder what it is going to take to force the kind of real and profound change that is needed in the US food safety apparatus.