Monday, March 13, 2006

Mad Cow Disease - Time for Some Sanity?

It seems that there may be another case of a Mad Cow infected animal. Although this one did not enter the food chain, there are always a few of us that wonder if any might have.

The scariest sentences in science often begin with the words "There is no evidence that....." Why? The reason is that what those words really mean is that the scientific method requires that any accepted conclusion in the various fields of science be backed by evidence that is scientifically acceptable and meet other stringent requirements. That's how scientific research is conducted. Think about it for a second. That doesn't mean that the hypothesis is false or that the theory cannot happen. All it really means is that whatever research (if any) that produced any results (if appropriate) on the matter either does not meet the stringent requirements of scientific proof or has enough statistical looseness that they cannot conclude with certainty that something can happen.

There are tests for Mad Cow Disease (BSE) with at least four companies that do it. Universities have been researching for low costs tests for years and here is a story from UC - San Francisco and another from Northeastern.

In the UK and Japan, they test every cow that is slaughtered. The US government contends that sample testing and process changes are sufficient to prevent BSE from getting into the food chain. The probable truth here is that the current administration does not want to incur on the meat producers the additional costs of testing every cow. The definite truth is that the test kits costs between $30 to $50. Add that to the 1000 pounds for each cow and you will have to pay 3 to 5 cents more per pound.

I can live with that.

This is not just a statistics question. This is an emotional question. When it comes to food and life, the US public is extremely active and responsive to fears regardless if those same fears are rational or not. The government may be right scientifically and rationally. Their policies may just be good enough. However, when dealing with this sort of perceived danger to personal health, there is a sufficient proportion of the public that prefer 100% testing. It is not as if another few cents per pound is going to have an impact of raising the minimum wage by 5 cents per hour. Everyone can afford another 5 cents per pound for guaranteed peace of mind when buying that beef.

Even if 100% testing is not implemented. At least allow slaughterhouses to perform their own testing and advertise that fact. Let the market forces decide if the overhead of testing for MCD/BSE is worth it. It is sad that the USDA actually refused to allow a farm to test their own cows so that they could export to Japan.

It is time for some sanity.

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