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The McClatchy News Service reports that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has declared an "extraordinary emergency" because of the discovery of mad cow disease on US soil. The move reportedly gives the federal government additional authority to quarantine herds and destroy cattle, as well as providing additional funding that can be used for the investigation and to reimburse farmers for animals that have been destroyed.

It was just days before Christmas that a single Holstein cow was found to be infected with mad cow disease. Since then, four herds have been quarantined and some 600 cows have been slaughtered.

However, it was noted by the news service that while the emergency declaration was published a week ago in the Federal Register - a daily publication of all rules, regulations and notices issued by the federal government - the USDA made no announcement that an emergency had been declared.

"It's not a big deal," Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the department, said Thursday.

The Federal Register notice said that the "presence of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), presented a 'threat to livestock. It constitutes a significant danger to the national economy and a potential serious burden to interstate and foreign commerce.'"

"It does make it look serious," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.
KC's View:
We're willing to accept the notion that this is a procedural move that doesn’t really change.

That said, you have to wonder if this near-surreptitious move is connected (at least philosophically) with the White House proposal, reported last week here on MNB, that in the event of any national emergency, the decision of what information to release and when will be left up to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This proposal has raised eyebrows in the scientific community about leaving scientific decisions in the hands of politicians.

Declaring an emergency but not announcing it because the government doesn't want to worry anyone strikes us as a kind of "Father Knows Best" attitude. Though some would classify it as "Big Brother Knows Best."

In related mad cow news, the Sacramento Bee reported that three restaurants in Nevada County, California, received and served potentially tainted meat that was part of the 10,000 pounds of hamburger that was recalled by the USDA.

The Bee reported that "the California Department of Food and Agriculture notified counties that received potentially tainted beef on Jan. 2. While an agreement with federal authorities prohibits state officials from releasing recall information, the counties can break the deal if they feel there's an imminent threat to public health.

While county health officials said that the health risk was low, they also did not identify the restaurants or their locations.

Maybe it is because we're in the communications business, but it seems to be a curious approach to the free flow of information…and one that doesn’t seem like it would engender a lot of confidence among American consumers.

It's interesting to read all the mad cow coverage, and see how it is perceived by the mainstream media - which, like it or not, may well be reflecting the concerns of some consumers. (Not all, of course. Most consumers aren’t as well informed as the media. But reading mainstream coverage of incidents like the mad cow occurrence can give you a hint of how people might react if the situation gets worse and better publicized.)

The Washington Post, for example, had a good piece over the weekend noting that while "most people agree that the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world…food safety can be a moving target as bacteria mutate and industry looks for ways to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. So, for instance, despite years of criticism, it was only after the BSE incident that the government declared, and industry agreed, that downer cattle -- cows too sick or injured to walk -- would be eliminated from the food supply."

We're not sure that's what consumers want to read or hear.

The Post to name nine other changes that food advocates are calling for in the food safety system, and that government and industry seem to be resisting…though the subtext is, of course, that this resistance could melt under the right circumstances…like when the cow is already out of the barn.