U.S. Beef Exports to China Will Resume: Who Remembers Why They Stopped?

After the first case of mad cow, things got worse.

Photo Credit: Mikhail

U.S. cattlemen and agriculture professionals are ecstatic over China’s willingness to accept U.S. beef imports for the first time in 13 years. Yet few reports explain why the beef ban occurred in the first place.

On December 23, 2003, the USDA announced that a Holstein cow, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, tested positive for mad cow disease. Ann Veneman, USDA secretary at the time and other USDA officials, said the cow was discovered because she was a “downer”––unable to walk—which was how the system screened for mad cows. In other words, the system “worked.” The problem was three workers said the cow had walked just fine suggesting that the entire federal mad cow testing program was worthless. Congressional hearings ensued.

As it turned out, congressional troubles were the least of cattle producers’ problems. Within hours of the mad cow announcement, China, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and ninety other countries banned US beef and 98 percent of the $3 billion overseas beef market vanished. (The only reason the EU didn’t ban U.S. beef was it was already banned for its hormones oestradiol-17, trenbolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol which EU officials said increased breast and prostate cancer risks.)

After the first mad cow, things got worse. Two more mad cows were found in the U.S. in 2004 and they weren’t from Canada. One was born in Texas and the other Alabama. Worse, a USDA export verification report admitted that 29 downers at two unidentified slaughterhouses went into the human food supply and 20 were not tested for mad cow disease.

Answering Japanese ag officials’ questions about the slip-ups, Mike Johanns (who succeeded Ann Veneman as USDA secretary) claimed the animals were healthy when they arrived at the slaughterhouse but somehow sustained “injuries.” Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri reporter Eiji Hirose, however, was not buying it. Johanns did not give any “clear evidence for his conclusion,” wrote Hirose and Johanns’ overall comments appeared “to show the U.S. government does not take the issue seriously enough.

Problems Get Worse

Sure enough, a month after U.S. ag officials convinced Japan to resume its $1.5 billion a year imports of U.S. beef again, backbone material found in a shipment from the US, considered a mad cow risk, moved Japan to re-impose the ban.

In 2008 in South Korea, actualriots broke out as citizens viewed videos of downers from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company that went into the food supply. becoming the biggest meat recall in U.S. history. Citizens demonstrated in 23 South Korean cities as the US and South Korea prepared to sign the free-trade agreement, KORUS FTA. “We Don’t Like the FDA,” “Mad Cow, You Eat It!” and “Send Mad Cow to the Presidential Office!” they chanted at candlelight vigils, some dressed in cow costumes.

And China? The world’s second-biggest beef buyer and second-largest economy was the last country to lift its U.S. beef ban. Its reversal was apparently a quid pro quo in which the US agreed to import cooked chickens from China.

China has a poor food safety track record that includes rat meat sold as lamb, gutter oil sold as cooking oil, baby formula contaminated with melamine and frequent bird flu epidemics. So the health of U.S. food consumers is apparently just a bargaining chip in U.S. meat producers’ desire to increase their profits.

The complete story of mad cow in the U.S. including underreported consumer risks is found in my book Born with a Junk Food Deficiency.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."

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