USDA Prime Manure
© 2006 Ross Williams
The government wants to keep our food supply safe from a terrorist attack. Good for them. It's a great idea. ...which, coming from the government, is conspicuous in its rarity.
The government also wants to maintain the credibility of our beef exports from the damage – real and imagined, er, rather, "in image" – of BSE. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. "Mad cow disease". Another really good idea.
The portion of our government tasked to simultaneously protect our food supply from terrorist attack and our beef exports from the image problems associated with having a cow or two over the past 10 years being found having BSE is the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA.
Terrorists would most efficiently attack our food supply by poisoning one or several cattle breeders – the farmers who have thousands of female cows and buy both bull sperm and turkey basters in bulk, breeding thousands of calves each year from which they keep the females for breeding, select a few males for stud, and the rest of the males will be castrated and sold off as steer to large- and small-lot cattle ranchers who’ll feed them for two years until mature enough to be turned into steaks and burgers. You decimate this part of the cattle supply, you not only hurt this year’s beef supply, but the beef supply for years to come.
Or chickens. Poison the livestock in one of the chicken breeder farms, the ones which have 30,000 chickens at any given time.
Or any of the large, “factory farms” for pigs. The ones that snooty suburbanites who’ve moved to the country to get away from the crowding and noise of the city continually demand be closed down, and sue to eliminate.
The guy who’s got a dozen chickens for the eggs and the occasional Sunday dinner, a few goats for weed control, a horse to ride and a steer to slaughter for the freezer is, let’s face it, not high on the islamist terrorist priority list. Let’s face this also: he’s not on the list at all. A scattergun policy that treats all livestock operations as if it were a viable terrorist target to harm our nations food supply is, first, idiotic and, second, overly-costly and, third, ineffective.
BSE – bovine spongiform encephalopathy – is a disease that affects bovines. Cows. Cattle. It is a remarkably rare disease. Of the billions of cows in the world who’ve lived and/or died in the last decade, only a few thousand cases have ever been found – almost entirely in Britain. Do the math. Of the hundreds of millions of cows in the US over the same period of time, only 2 – or was it 3? – case have been found. Do the math again.
It is transmissible from one cow to another. Almost all such transmission from one cow to another is done by one cow eating the other who has the disease. Since this is not something that cows normally do, it has taken the combined efforts of modern science and British governmental ineptitude to make it possible for cows to eat each other. Cow parts left over from slaughter are mixed in with plant material in order to make cow feed. This is then fed to cows in someone’s feed lots and the net result is, when a BSE-diseased cow is ground up and used in cow feed, a few cows down the food chain will get it.
It is virtually unheard of for cows living off pasture or hay to get BSE. It happens, but the disease is strikingly rare in the first place, even with the “epidemic” of cannibalistic cows.
But when an American cow gets BSE, other nations – like Mexico and Japan – don’t want to buy American hamburger because of the infinitesimal chance that eating a burger made from a cow that had BSE will give that person the human equivalent of BSE – or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The scientific explanation for the connection goes something like this: there’s a rare brain-spongifying disease in humans called Creutzfeldt-Jakob, and of the people who get it, almost all of them have had a hamburger at some point in their lives … connect the dots.
BSE is not, despite the panicky claims, readily transmissible to or from other species. Horses don’t have to worry. Nor do chickens. Or goats. Or pigs. Or sheep. And, most importantly, cows don’t have to worry about getting it from any of them.
If the US wants to protect the integrity of our beef exports from BSE, then they need to target our cows. A scattergun policy that treats all livestock as if it were a likely vector for bovine spongiform encephalopathy is, first, idiotic and, second, overly-costly and, third, ineffective.
In response to both the potential for terrorist targeting and BSE in our beef exports, guess what the USDA is wanting to do?
That’s right. The USDA wants to treat the small and hobby farmer exactly the same as it treats corporate ranches, and it wants to treats horses, pigs, chickens, llamas and goats as if they were cows capable of spreading a cow disease.
The USDA has gotten together with “industry stakeholders” and concocted a plan by which all livestock in the United States will be marked and registered with the USDA, along with the “premises” such animals are living at. NAIS; National Animal Identification System. Currently voluntary, but will be mandatory in all phases by 2009.
Any animal which dies unexpectedly must be reported to the USDA, any animal which leaves its “premises” for any reason must be reported to the USDA, any transfer of livestock from one person or “premises” to another must be reported to the USDA, any sale or slaughter must be reported, every hiccup and cough … and, okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat, but not by a lot. A straight, lawyerly reading of the USDA’s draft regulation doesn’t give exaggeration much legroom.
The USDA has, though, come out with a guide for “small-scale or non-commercial producers” which says that the intention is not to force hobby farmers out of existence. Nice words, but there doesn’t – as yet – seem to be a change in their draft rule. So it’s sorta like the police chief assuring the citizens that, no, they won’t be handing out tickets in the new speed trap if you’re driving 5 miles over the limit and slowing down; but this assurance doesn’t change the speed limit, and the cop will issue the speeding ticket if the department is short of cash. Good luck in traffic court.
The USDA’s rule was drafted by commercial agricultural interests – Monsanto, Cargill, American Farm Bureau – and not publicized among small and hobby farmers. Monsanto has known about this for years. I, as a rancher with 2 horses, 4 sheep and my son’s 9 4-H chickens in residence, found out about it last month. And while I will admit that the purpose of having such a thing in place is a good idea for their stated reasons, the method which they have proposed, in writing, to meet those needs places a disproportionate burden on the folks who are not subject to those conditions in the first place.
In other words, my sheep are not going to be the source for another round of national export embarrassment over BSE, and my son’s chickens will not be the target for al Zawahiri’s next foray into imported terrorism. Making me register my home and my livestock isn’t going to do anything for anyone – constructive, that is. It’d piss me off, and make the USDA have to take an awful lot of reports every time I saddle up Bones and ride him down to the mailbox, which is not as often as I’d like.
But as far as meeting the Department’s aims … won’t work.
I remain skeptical that an online .pdf page which may not exist tomorrow will be an adequate defense against a federal seizure of my livestock when I refuse to comply with NAIS. I predict that a lawyer working for the USDA will point out that the regulations don’t exempt any livestock for any reason, and that an explanatory “guideline” doesn’t carry the weight of law. The administrative law judge will not disagree simply because I declare – correctly – that their rules are monumentally retarded.
 Attacking our food supply isn’t necessarily a terrorist tactic; many “sensitive” liberals are already doing that with their NIMBY lawsuits and rural development.
 Bovine == cow; spongiform = in the form of a sponge; encephalo- = brain; pathy = disease. BSE is a disease that affects cows brains and makes it look like a sponge, i.e., full of holes. This then affects the cow’s behavior, making it act “mad”, or insane. Bellowing, falling down, running around. Much like some of the people you see who fret about it.
 Mmmmm! Protein!
 Purists and pedants will say that it’s variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Yadda yadda; that’s merely the Creutzfeldt-Jakob you get when you aren’t a vegetarian.
 “The attention garnered from the BSE case last December, coupled with the increasing
number of animal disease outbreaks worldwide over the last decade, has intensified the
level of interest in developing NAIS. September 11, 2001, also taught us that we have to
prepare for potential intentional disease introductions. NAIS is a top USDA priority.”
William “Bill” Hawks
Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs