It's been a few weeks now since I had my last cheeseburger. Okay, I'll admit it— I've succumbed to the latest diet fad — the “mad cow” diet. I've haven't given up all red meat, and in fact what I like about this diet is that it encourages you to eat only the finest cuts of steak you can find. But I do miss those cheeseburgers, and I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, though, and knowing what I now know about the fine art of rendering cattle and exactly how cows manage to contract bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka “mad cow disease”) ... well, it's seriously diminished my appetite for bologna.
It certainly didn't help that the mad cow scare came right on the heels of the green onions scare (which I wrote about last December; I do seem to write about food a lot). And on the heels of those alerts, we were treated to the news from the Centers for Disease Control that the most dangerous foods, in terms of foodborne diseases, are vegetables and fruits. The irony of that CDC report — that the healthiest foods are also the ones most likely to make you sick — still has me shaking my head.
Fortunately, there's always seafood, which is so good for you that some health food stores sell bottled fish oil to cure any number of ailments. But then again, no, maybe eating fish isn't such a good idea after all — pregnant women have been advised by the Food and Drug Administration to avoid tuna, among other large fish, because of the risk of mercury poisoning being passed on to their babies. And then there's the report that salmon from Scotland can cause cancer. So scratch that one off the menu, too.
We've just about reached the point where it's no longer advisable to eat a single thing grown or raised on this planet. I'm starting to think the real goal of the Mars rover project is to harvest new food products that have never come into contact with any terrestrial life form.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has pledged it will maintain the security of the nation's food chain, and fortunately — especially fortunate if you're a provider of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags — the answer has been right there all along: a national animal identification system.
It's an idea whose time has definitely come. According to a recent AP report, the USDA could only locate 19 of the 80 cows that entered the U.S. from Canada along with the notorious mad cow after four weeks of looking. Part of the problem is that while cattle are typically tracked by numbered ear tags, the records of those tags often only exist on paper, making for a tedious search process.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has been participating in the development of a better tracking capability for the past 18 months. Dubbed the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), this program would include RFID tags for cattle and other livestock as well as a central database that would store all of this information. With an estimated 200 million head of livestock in the U.S., that's a lot of identification chips. With total costs for the USAIP program estimated at $600 million, that's asking a lot of American ranchers, who will have to foot the bill for all of those chips.
Out of necessity, the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency has announced its plans to adopt RFID tags by January 1, 2005. The move is obviously prompted by the demands of economic survival — a single instance of mad cow-contaminated dog food caused the U.S. government to suspend all imports of Canadian beef, costing Canada millions of dollars a day in lost revenue. And once the origin of the mad cow found in Washington state was ultimately traced back to Canada, the Canadians had no choice than to put logistics technology to work, to assure consumers that their food is safe.
And those safety concerns, ultimately, will prompt the U.S. cattle industry to do the same. In fact, Ann Veneman, secretary of the USDA, has fast-tracked the adoption of the USAIP program, making it the top priority of the USDA's technical team “to develop the technology architecture necessary to implement an effective and verifiable system throughout the U.S.”
The sooner they get such a program underway, the better. With all the homeland security measures in place to protect U.S. borders from bad stuff getting in, it's quite disconcerting to see other countries suspending imports of U.S. beef to prevent what they think is bad stuff getting out of the U.S.
At least this mad cow scare happened in the dead of winter. Come summertime, when I haul my barbecue grill out of storage, I'll be going off my diet.