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HOW NOW, MAD COW?

The spread of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth across Europe show thatno country-including the United States-is immune to the threat of animalborne illnesses. Yet, in the U.S., industry and government officials aresinging the same tune as British officials 15 years ago, when theBritish authorities consistently downplayed news of the emergence of BSE(Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) or "mad cow" disease.

Globalized trade in goods and services, the movement of animals acrossborders, and the frequency of intercontinental airline travel means thatno country is immune to mad cow or foot-and-mouth or any number ofexisting-or emerging-diseases. The recently completed Panamericanhighway from Colombia to the United States virtually guarantees thatfoot-and-mouth-already a problem in South America-will make its way upto North America. A Brit with the foot-and-mouth virus hitchhiking onhis shoes can board a plane in London and be on a Texas cattle farm in amatter of hours.

Since 1986, the year mad cow disease and its human version were detectedin the UK, British meat has been shipped around the world. So haveBritish feed products, which can harbor this poorly-understood illnessthat is fatal to humans. Mad cows have already shown up in France,Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Ireland and Spain-a dozencountries in total. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizationhas declared that all nations should consider themselves at risk, thoughmany seem unprepared. A recent survey by U.S. Food and DrugAdministration found that a frightening one in four Americanslaughterhouses and feed processing plants fail to comply with steps toprevent mad cow disease.

But simply worrying about the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth and mad cowdoesn't really help us solve the problem, much less understand it. Andto understand it you have to realize that mad cow and foot-and-mouth arerelated diseases. Not in any biological sense, but in terms of theeconomic environment that allows them to thrive.

The modern animal farm not only allows, but paves the way for theoutbreak of disease. We cram thousands of genetically uniform animalsinto unhygienic warehouses, generating a virtual frat party formicrobes. We recycle animal manure and slaughterhouse waste as feed. Weprocess meat at break-neck speed in the presence of blood, feces, andother contagion. Long-distance transport of food creates endlessopportunities for contamination.

The irony is that this model of food production-designed to put economicgain ahead of good animal health-doesn't make any economic sense in thelong term. Mad cow alone has already cost Britain over $1 billion andsapped $5.6 million from EU coffers. The price tag for foot-and-mouthis likely to be equally devastating.

And these outbreaks represent just a glimpse of the full toll onsociety. The mountains of manure that factory farming generates foul ourair and water, disrupting ecosystems and sickening rural communities.Antibiotic overuse in factory farms comes back to harm us in the form ofnewly drug-resistant microbes, including Salmonella, E. coli, andCamplyobacter. A recent study found that America's farm animals consumeroughly 10 times as much antibiotics as the human population.

Still, industrial animal farming is spreading. It is the fastest growingform of animal production-responsible for nearly half of the world'smeat, up from one-third in 1990. Though concentrated in North Americaand Europe, feedlots are popping up near urban centers in Brazil, thePhilippines, China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world wheredemand for meat and animal products is soaring.

There is, of course, another way to produce meat, one which treats farmsas living systems rather than assembly lines. It's no coincidence thatmad cow has yet to be reported on organic farms throughout Europe whichprohibit feeding of slaughterhouse waste, give animals access to theoutdoors, and emphasize good animal health in general. In countrieslike Sweden, which have been able to prevent an outbreak with goodanimal husbandry, farmers have gained public trust and recaptured localmarkets. Healthy animals will also be the best defense againstfoot-and-mouth.

In Germany, the food scare has sparked an about-face on agriculturalpolicy. After the first reports of mad cow, the prime minister replacedthe agricultural minister with an environmentalist, and declared thatagricultural policy and farm practices must resonate with environmentaland public health goals. The European Union as a whole is posed forsimilar systematic reforms that reach beyond quick-fix solutions likeanimal quarantines and meat irradiation.

It's time American politicians-currently in denial-took the same path.We need reforms at the national level, but in the end, it's a globalissue. Trade is global; disease is global, and protecting public healthmust become global too.

Written by: Worldwatch Institute


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