May 13, 2008

To Test or Not to Test?

In the mid- to late-1980s and early 1990s, the first automobile manufacturers began to sell cars with airbags as a standard feature (they weren’t a federal requirement until 1998). Imagine if the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration had sued those carmakers, arguing that they should not be allowed to sell cars with airbags because they were trying to create “false assurances” that people driving those cars would be safer than cars equipped only with seat belts.

It’s a ludicrous proposition, I know. But the government has been actively engaged in a very similar type of action. Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture -- which is charged, in part, with assuring that farms and meat packers produce food free from things that will make consumers sick – sued a Kansas-based beef outfit, Creekstone Farms, to prevent them from testing all of their cattle for so-called Mad Cow Disease, known in scientific circles as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The feds lost. But they decided to appeal. And it’s looking like they’re set to lose again.

Chief Judge David B. Sentelle seemed to agree with Creekstone's contention that the additional testing would not interfere with agency regulations governing the treatment of animals.

"All they want to do is create information," Sentelle said, noting that it's up to consumers to decide how to interpret the information.

Hmm… Now why would the government object to wider testing of cattle? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Ensure the safety of meat. Isn’t that one of the most important functions of the USDA and FDA and other government agencies, protecting the public well being?

For example, the FDA requires that every single unit of red blood cells and plasma intended for use in patients is tested with exquisitely sensitive (and intensively regulated) tests for HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B, among other things.

Ironically, there are even specific inquiries on the FDA-mandated questionnaires that prospective blood and plasma donors must fill out specifically intended to screen out donors who may have consumed beef that may have come from… wait for it… BSE-infected cows (e.g., From 1980 to 1996, did you spend time that adds up to three (3) months or more in the United Kingdom?)!

So, yes, if you even visited certain countries in the U.K. for just a week between 1980 and 1996, you cannot donate blood in the United States.

Yet, only approximately 1% of cattle intended to become integral parts of chili cook-offs and drunken weekend barbecues across the United States are tested for BSE.

So, again, why would the government – or, to be more accurate, the current administration – object to a cattle company wanting to test more of its cows for BSE?

Larger meatpackers have opposed Creekstone's push to allow wider testing out of fear that consumer pressure would force them to begin testing all animals too. Increased testing would raise the price of meat by a few cents per pound.

This action by the Feds just reeks of the same kind of corrupt behavior of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture when it attempted to outlaw milk labels that used phrases like “hormone free.”

As Creekstone’s attorney told the appeals court judges:

"This is the government telling the consumers, `You're not entitled to this information,'" Frye said.

This is outrageous behavior. And it proves yet again, as Sen. Barbara Boxer once said, that “elections have consequences.”

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