Wednesday, December 31, 2003

"Mad Cow" nonsense 

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. has a crisp piece in today's Wall Street Journal that spells out why the actual health risk associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("BSE," known among the great unwashed as "Mad Cow disease") falls somewhere between the mortality risk associated with nosepicking, and nil. Unfortunately, TigerHawk is too cheap to pay for the WSJ online, so I have to refer you to the paper version (to which TigerHawk is a loyal subscriber).

Jenkins' point is the obvious one -- that the British were happily slamming down bangers made from chewed up infected cows for years, and total British deaths from human variant CJD (which is the really bad thing humans get if they are in fact infected by BSE) are still under 150 after more than a decade. While there have been a lot of scare stories about the long incubation period for the disease, deaths peaked a couple of years ago and (according to Jenkins) total casualties from the original British outbreak should not exceed 200 people. This after more than 200,000 cows were infected, and in many cases slaughtered and dumped into the food chain of a sausage eating country. You're a lot more likely to die in your bathtub.

The politics of this are equally stupid, and the Democrats (notably Howard Dean) have really missed a chance to make an intelligent argument. As the Washington Post points out, both Howard Dean and John Kerry have been arguing that the presence of the single infected cow is the result of poor safety practices for which the Bush Administration is responsible. This is ridiculous, as even the Post acknowledges: "The trouble is that, at least at this stage, there is no particular reason to think that the regulatory systems designed to prevent an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in this country didn't function as intended."

The real failure of the Bush Administration, in my opinion, was in its reaction to the Canadian case last May. Instead of taking the high road and declaring that the risk posed by BSE to human health is trivial, the Bush Administration joined other countries in piling on Canada, inflicting great economic damage. Now it is payback time, and every country in the world with a beef industry to protect is using this as an excuse to keep out American beef.

If Howard Dean were interested in making some sense, he would have argued that the Bush Administration's "unilateralist" response to Canada's BSE case last May was yet another example of the United States "going it alone" at the expense of our allies, and that once again average Americans (or at least cattle producers) are suffering because of "arrogance" in the White House. That's an argument that would have been consistent with Dean's themes, and intelligent to boot. But he didn't make it, and instead proliferated the myth that American beef is in some way dangerous because of BSE.


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