About a week ago, I wrote a post about the US Department of Agriculture's decision to try to prevent meatpackers from testing their herds for mad cow disease. I quoted an AP article that said this (among other things):
"The Agriculture Department regulates the test and argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry."
TJIT, in comments, pointed to this link, in which Stuart Buck suggests that that sentence from the AP story was wrong, and that the government had in fact made a completely different and much more defensible argument. I went and looked up the brief and decisions on the case (06-544 (JR); thank you, PACER!), and Stuart Buck is right. Here's what the government actually argued (quoting from the government's consolidated memorandum of 9/22/2006):
"As discussed previously, the vast majority of cattle that are processed into beef in the United States are less than 24 months old. See Ferguson Decl. ¶ 5. However, the average incubation period for the BSE disease is five years, meaning that on average it takes five years from the date a cow is infected with BSE for the cow to show any outward clinical signs of the disease, such as abnormal posture, inability to walk, or other impaired coordination. See id. Given that the earliest point at which current BSE testing methods can detect a positive case of BSE is only two to three months before a cow would demonstrate clinical signs of the disease, see id. ¶ 10; Rippke Decl. ¶ 9, testing all young normal-looking cattle for slaughter, as proposed by plaintiff, is not practical and offers no animal health or food safety value because testing a young infected animal with the current methodology would likely produce false negative results, Ferguson Decl. ¶ 10.23. Accordingly, when used to diagnose the presence of BSE in all cattle for slaughter, as proposed by plaintiff, BSE test kits are worthless and subject to regulation under VSTA. [note from hilzoy: VSTA = the Virus-Serum-Toxin Act] See 70 Fed. Reg. 460, 475 (Jan. 4, 2005) (explaining that performing BSE testing on all slaughter-aged cattle is scientifically unjustified and serves no meaningful purpose regarding human or animal health); Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America v. USDA, 415 F.3d 1078, 1099-1100 (9th Cir. 2005) (finding that limitations on current BSE testing methods support USDA’s policy against private non-targeted BSE testing of all cattle for slaughter such that policy was not arbitrary and capricious)."
Or, in short: the government argues that since tests for BSE only pick up the disease a few months before an animal becomes symptomatic, a point which is usually well after most US cattle are slaughtered, testing would miss most infected animals. It would, essentially, be a marketing gimmick designed to produce unfounded confidence. (There are, of course, arguments on other issues -- is the BSE test appropriately regulated under the VSTA? Has Japan's decision to start importing US beef again rendered the case moot? Etc. -- but this is the one that's relevant to the point at hand.) I have no idea whether the government's argument is right or not, but it's important to be accurate about what, exactly, that argument was. And it's completely different from the argument the AP story claims that the government made.
I think that one of the points of blogging is to make information more accessible, thereby allowing people to make more informed decisions. For this reason, I also think that when I say something that's just wrong, I should say so. Thus, this post.
(Note to AP: get better reporters.)