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An uncertain start

The Mad Cow contingency

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Montanans are anxiously watching the news about the nation’s first discovery of Mad Cow Disease, or BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), in a Washington dairy herd. For the first time in years, Montana’s ranchers were enjoying good prices for their products. Suddenly, two cays before Christmas, this comes along. To make things worse, Montana has now been listed as one of the eight states to which the beef from the infected cow had been shipped for human consumption. Those of us not worried about losing the ranch are wondering about that burger, or chili, or taco we ate last week.

No one really knows what will happen over America’s first Mad Cow episode, but the repercussions so far are significant, with dozens of nations already closing their borders to American beef imports, just as they did during Britain’s Mad Cow epidemic more than a decade ago. In Britain, the final Mad Cow tally saw 4.5 million cattle killed, plunging that country’s beef industry into economic ruin.

Import bans cut both ways, however, and the run-up in beef prices Montana’s ranchers have recently enjoyed came in large part from an import ban imposed on Canadian cattle after a similar discovery of Mad Cow Disease in Alberta some months ago.

Economic experts say that losing the export market won’t be fatal to the cattle industry as long as America’s domestic market holds up. The market for domestic beef consumption has recently been boosted by, of all things, the popularity of the low-carb Atkins Diet. Beef, depending on where it’s raised, what it’s been fed, and how it’s been handled, is an excellent high-protein food. Provided, of course, that it didn’t come from a Mad Cow—and even then, so they tell us, the threat is virtually zero from consumption of muscle tissue.

Still and all, 143 humans died in England of the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human variant of Mad Cow Disease. Both afflictions are believed to be caused by rogue proteins called prions, which are notoriously difficult to destroy.

The variant of this disease found in wildlife is called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Montanans will recall the destruction of a

CWD-infected game-farm elk herd in Phillipsburg some years back, in which a high-temp toxic waste incinerator was used to dispose of the carcasses. The incident, and the fear and uncertainty surrounding this disease, undoubtedly helped pass the citizens’ initiative to phase out game farms in Montana.

CWD has turned up in wild game animals in all the states around Montana in recent years, and it’s only a matter of time before it shows up in our deer and elk, too, say the experts. As research in the area grows, so does speculation on how the disease can be spread. Unfortunately, research is showing that it appears to be far easier to communicate than previously thought possible, including the potential to be spread through saliva. To make matters worse, there is no “live test” for the disease; you have to kill the cattle or wildlife for positive confirmation on any of the Mad Cow variants.

Taken together, the current level of knowledge about the disease, its communicability and its disposal are dauntingly uncertain. If you need a toxic waste incinerator to get rid of elk prions, why is a simple recall good enough for the Mad Cow beef? If they’re finding it spreads easier than thought in game animals, what about domesticated herds?

This level of uncertainty over the disease is clearly reflected in the “Close the borders first, ask questions later” import policies practiced by almost all nations, including the U.S. But now that the shoe is on the other foot and it’s our beef that’s being banned, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dr. Kenneth Petersen says there’s “essentially zero risk to consumers,” while USDA’s chief veterinarian says that the trade restrictions “are not well founded in science.”

Having it both ways seems dubious at best, and only increases the uncertainty over what’s true and what’s speculation. That uncertainty was reflected in the stock market last week when cattle futures plummeted so quickly that trading was suspended for two days in a row. Montana’s first beef sale since the Mad Cow discovery will probably give us a better idea of what that will translate into for our local ranchers—but already experts are predicting a 15 percent drop in cattle prices.

Predictably, in this election year there is political fallout over who is to blame for what. The last Congress failed on a 202 -199 vote to pass legislation that would have prohibited “downer cows”—those that cannot stand on their own—from entering the food supply. For the record, Montana’s Denny Rehberg voted against the measure, and critics say the meat-packing industry is calling the shots on food safety.

The dark side of this episode is what it may mean for Montana—but there are a lot of “ifs” in the equation right now. If the import bans are not lifted, and if Americans reduce their beef consumption, more Montana ranchers will be economically marginalized. The tougher things get, the more ranchers may decide “to hell with it” and sell the ranches, which are then subdivided and developed.

If the worst comes to pass, the economic repercussions will also ripple throughout the state. When ranchers go down, so do the companies that sell them their equipment and services. In much of the state, that means a big hit to the entire local economy, and eventually to the state’s overall fiscal condition.

The silver lining in this dark cloud, if there is one, is Montana’s reputation for being a “clean and healthful” state. The last decade, however, has seen serious attacks on the environmental laws that built that reputation.

In light of the fears raised by Mad Cow Disease, restoring the protections for our “clean and healthful” environment would make good sense for our land, our economy and our people as we tumble into the uncertainties of the coming new year.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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