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How pure is the U.S. beef supply, really?

How safe is our food supply from mad cow disease and what is the U.S. government doing to protect consumers? Phil Lempert shares the latest.

It has long been argued in this space that the approach taken by the U.S. government in dealing with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — better known as mad cow disease — has been lackadaisical and insufficient to guarantee the integrity of the meat supply and the safety of American consumers. We have long pointed to the Japanese model — test every cow, now matter what — as the only legitimate approach that can be employed to deal with the mad cow threat.

Government officials, however, have disputed this assertion, claiming that everything was fine, the safety net was pulled tight enough, and that there is nothing to worry about.

Last week, just a month after the Japanese government decided to allow the import of U.S. beef into that country, it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country.

When the two-year-old ban was lifted late last year, it was with the expressed condition that imported U.S. beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.

Before the ban, Japan was the most lucrative market in the world for American beef, importing more than $1.7 billion worth in 2003.

The halting of shipments is described as "temporary" at the moment, but it remains possible that a broader and long-lasting ban could be reinstated.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said that he was sending inspectors to Japan to examine shipments, and was increasing the number of unannounced inspections in American plants. Still, he conceded that mistakes had been made. "Our agreement with Japan is to export beef with no vertebral column and we have failed to meet the terms of that agreement," Johanns said in a statement.

But the failure is broader than that. The failure is in not being vigilant enough in making policy decisions, and not being transparent enough in communicating with industry and the public about what priorities should be. The failure is in being reactive, not proactive, in dealing with what potentially is a major public health issue. The failure is in the government putting commerce before safety, industry before the public interest.

The big question is if spinal matter is making it into exported beef, what is making it into beef we are eating right here at home?

It isn't too late to start doing things right. It is, however, way too late for the U.S. government to be in a perpetual state of mad cow denial.

On Monday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that a six-year-old cow in Alberta tested positive for BSE; it is the fourth case of mad cow found in Canadian cattle since 2003. 

This case, of course, is unwelcome, but it's not unexpected, said Brian Evans, the inspection agency's chief veterinary officer. We have always maintained that we could find a small number of additional cases through our active surveillance program. Evans also said that the cow had not entered the food supply and that there was no threat to human health.

It was just six months ago that the U.S. reopened its borders to Canadian cattle, saying that it was satisfied that sufficient systems were in place to prevent further spread of the disease.  Mike Johanns, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said that nothing has happened to change his mind.

I anticipate no change in the status of beef or live cattle imports to the U.S. from Canada under our established agreement, he said in a prepared statement. As I've said many times, our beef trade decisions follow internationally accepted guidelines that are based in science.

Of course, this also occurs just days after Japan halted shipments of American beef.  The discovery reignited concerns in Japan about the possibility that beef tainted with BSE could be coming from U.S. suppliers. 

There have been two confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the U.S.

Here’s the question that U.S. officials have to answer... the question that we as consumers have to demand be answered: What will it take to get the U.S. government to decide to test every cow?

What concerns us is not the cows they find infected with BSE. It is the cows that are not being detected, that are getting into the food supply.

It could be one or two. It could be hundreds. We simply don’t know, and that is unacceptable.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at