How much longer should we defer to a governmental agency that has consistently failed to perform its duties? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with protecting the American food supply, yet not a week goes by without another food-related health scare seizing headlines across the nation: listeria in pasteurized milk; spinach contaminated with E. coli; and potentially unsafe meat from "downer" cattle (animals which are sick or injured and unable to stand). This past spring tomatoes and peppers were accused of causing 1,442 illnesses and two deaths, yet the USDA is still unable to confirm the source of the salmonella infections.
These outbreaks are the results of decades of USDA policy decisions which favor corporations and industrial agriculture over small family farms and local production. Intensive animal and crop operations can lead to sick animals and tainted vegetables entering the food chain, and regulations which would prevent these incidents are often overlooked when corporate interests are at stake. A prime example is the USDA's (mis) handling of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow" disease.
Europe has dealt with BSE for more than twenty-one years and has an extensive surveillance program in place: just last year approximately 9.7 million cattle were tested. While Europe tested millions, the USDA tested a few thousand and arrogantly proclaimed the United States was free of BSE, until the first case was discovered in 2003. Export markets dried up overnight. Japan and Korea, two of the largest importers of American beef, demanded the USDA either test for BSE or halt beef sales. The United States refused and a trade war quickly ensued. To date, tens of thousands of Koreans have taken to the streets to protest their government's acceptance of untested American beef. Subsequently, Japanese and Korean top officials have been either severely criticized or forced to resign for allowing imports of US beef into their countries.
Creekstone Farms raises all natural, premium beef and had a very lucrative overseas market until the first case of BSE. Anxious to re-establish trade, Creekstone contacted the USDA to purchase BSE testing kits, but the USDA denied them access to the kits and threatened fines and even imprisonment if Creekstone attempted to test their cattle. Creekstone Farms filed a federal suit against the USDA, demanding the right to test. In 2007, a federal district court ruled in their favor. The USDA quickly appealed-and won.
In a decision last week, D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson overturned the district court's ruling and made repeated references to the fact that Congress gave the USDA broad powers. "We owe USDA a considerable degree of deference in its interpretation of the term, bearing, as it does, on USDA's charge to 'administer our federal meat and poultry inspection laws,'" she stated.
But the USDA does not deserve this deference. When the Humane Society released undercover footage of animal abuse and downer cattle going into the human food supply while USDA officials were on site, Americans were outraged and called for action. The USDA worked with the California-based company to organize the largest meat recall in history-143 million pounds. What the American public was not told was that the recall was for all the meat the company had produced over the previous two years, and the vast majority of it had already been consumed. The USDA should be supporting the decentralization of the beef industry. USDA inspectors were already on site, so more inspections would not have made a difference, nor would more regulations. The best suggestion is for the USDA to support smaller slaughterhouses instead of forcing them out of business with burdensome regulations necessary for the industrial meat processors.
Our family farm, which produced high quality breeding stock and gourmet cheese, experienced the USDA's ineptness and corruption first hand when they targeted our healthy flock of sheep for BSE, a disease which does not exist in sheep. Our decade-long battle with the USDA and a subsequent lawsuit has revealed a laundry list of documented misdeeds against us including: destruction of evidence, suppression of test results, extensive undercover surveillance, and misleading and false statements given to the general public and our elected officials. The most egregious was an armed invasion of our family farm and the subsequent seizure and destruction of our animals and livelihood.
In an attempt to find a nonexistent disease, the USDA used every possible BSE testing method on our sheep, sometimes running five or six tests per animal, but to no avail. Our sheep were healthy. None of our sheep had BSE or any other disease. However, when a brief "enhanced" BSE surveillance program uncovered three cases of BSE in American cattle, the USDA quickly announced it would reduce testing for BSE by 90 percent, not increase-reduce. How is this protecting the American public? The USDA does not want to test American cattle for BSE and they are preventing any private company from doing so. The question is Why? Once again it comes down to the corporate-controlled USDA doing the bidding of its corporate sponsors, in this case the beef packers, slaughterhouses, and feed lots-rather than what is best for the American public.
The Creekstone v USDA lawsuit will head back to federal district court for one more ruling, and along with Chief Judge Sentelle who gave the dissenting opinion on the appeals court decision, I will be watching to see if the district court's review of USDA's denial to allow Creekstone to test can survive the arbitrary and capricious standard.
Currently the USDA screens less than 1 percent of the cattle slaughtered each year for BSE, and this 1 percent is comprised of only downer cows-despite the fact that downers are already supposedly banned from the food chain. Therefore, not a single piece of beef destined for human consumption in the United States is tested for BSE.
So while the judicial system continues to give deference to the USDA, I will give deference to those who truly deserve it-my fellow farmers who raise meat I trust. Not meat stamped with the USDA seal of approval.
Linda Faillace is the author of Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA's War on a Family Farm, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.