How many laws would a lawmaker make if a lawmaker could make laws without pause or cause? We're fixing to find out.

December's discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state is the stuff of dreams for election-year politicians. Here's a mysterious cattle disease tenuously linked to a devastating human health affliction, which had never before been found in the U.S.

There are so many unanswered, and heretofore unanswerable, questions left by the scientific community that it's easy to attack current BSE surveillance policies and safeguards. So, presumably protecting America's consumers from themselves will require big ideas and at least half the gold in Fort Knox.

The BSE announcement had barely hit the news when Democrats started making a hard run at reviving country-of-origin labeling (COOL). The law had been expected to garner a two-year delay, or essentially death, when the Senate took up the omnibus appropriations bill after returning from recess in January.

Before the new year had seen its second week, politicians were trumpeting the need for everything from testing every head harvested for BSE, to sticking computer chips on ear tags for tracking purposes [apparently they've never heard of electronic identification (ID)], to banning automated meat recovery (AMR) systems. You get the picture.

For her part, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman lost little time in altering current USDA regulations, seemingly as fast as ideas could hatch, albeit ideas that various interests had already been lobbying for. By December 30:

  • all downer animals were banned from the human food chain;

  • USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors are to hold carcasses tested for BSE until results are known;

  • specified risk material (SRM) — (brains, spinal chord and whatnot) — were more fully defined and banned from the human food supply chain;

  • acceptable AMR components were restricted further and limited to animals younger than 30 months (the previous two changes effective with publication in the Federal Register); and

  • air-injection stunning was banned, as was the use of mechanically separated meat in human food.

Many consumers and producers expressed shock that some of these firewalls weren't already in place. Allowing animals tested for BSE to enter into the supply chain before test results were known seems like a slam-dunk.

The ID Debate

But, the need for implementing each of these regulations — and those to follow — should be debated. Whatever their value, the volume and hue of the debate underscores the need for producers to participate in the process and support clear-headed analysis rather than knee-jerk emotional/psychological salve.

As these debates ensue, both consumers and producers will be forced to balance risk tolerance against the price of reducing what science says is already an infinitesimal risk. Of course, the obvious question with assuming that a single case in 1 million is acceptable when it comes to food-borne risk is: Who wants to eat that one head?

But, among Veneman's announcements, the one that created the most stir among producers and the animal ID firms waiting for movement in the livestock ID arena was likely this one:

“USDA has worked with partners at the federal and state levels and in industry for the past year and a half on the adoption of standards for a verifiable nationwide animal identification system to enhance the speed and accuracy of our response to disease outbreaks across many different animal species,” Veneman said. “I have asked USDA's Chief Information Officer to expedite the development of the technology architecture to implement this system.”

She was referring to the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (www.usaip.info), which was approved by the U.S. Animal Health Association in October as a work in progress. It was referred on to species-specific groups, apart from the U.S. Animal Identification Development Team, for evaluation.

With Veneman's announcement, it appears the process finally may be on a fast track. Keep in mind that the animal ID urged by the plan, with the goal of making it possible to trace any suspect animal to previous locations within 48 hours, has nothing to do with COOL.

For sure, the ID and tracking infrastructure would make COOL more possible, but COOL will never make ID and tracking possible. Anyone who says otherwise — who argues that COOL is equivalent to food safety — is more foolish than naïve.

Although the economic damage has been done, and the ultimate damage won't be known for some time, many producers breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced the BSE cow apparently originated in Canada. Really, that sigh of relief should have been for the fact that, because that cow came from Canada, she had an ID tag. That tag made it possible to trace her origin as quickly as possible.

ID alone is not safety, any more than testing is. Common, standardized ID, though, coupled with a common, secure, reliable, data-sharing system is essential to containing safety problems when they're found. Turns out, such a system has also likely become a prerequisite for international trade.