By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Fuqua has built his life around his herd. His ranch house, composed of plasticized concrete, stone and steel, is bored into a hill. The roof is topped with a layer of earth more than 5 feet deep. The skylights that peek through the earthen roof are capped with bulletproof glass to keep the cattle grazing on his roof from crashing down onto his dining room table.
Fuqua veers the Hummer onto his long, meandering driveway, where he meets a Ford traveling the opposite direction. He doesn't immediately recognize the men in the truck, but he invites them to lunch anyway.
They're salesmen from Temple Tag, a manufacturer of livestock identification systems like the large bright yellow and purple plastic tags that dangle from the ears of cows and steers. But Fuqua isn't interested in these. He toys with an electronic transponder, designed to be embedded in the animal's earlobe. When a wand tethered to a laptop computer is passed by the transponder, an identification number pops into a spreadsheet. An endless stream of data can be linked to the number, from genetic composition to feeding, weight and medical history strung all the way back to the animal's parents. To chew on this data, Fuqua has developed patented tracking and economic analysis formulas that allow him to manage, cull and replenish his herd for maximum profitability while keeping a few paces ahead of regulators, who are poised to shovel bushels of rules at ranchers in the wake of the discovery of that mad Holstein in Washington. Fuqua says his rich data sets will far outstrip any traceability requirements he anticipates from regulators.
The cattle industry has long opposed many of the regulations that have been proposed or handed down in the past few months, including mandatory country-of-origin labeling and a ban on slaughtering downer cows (animals that are too sick or injured to walk) destined for the human food supply. But industry leaders seemed to execute an abrupt about-face when confronted with the possibility that a mad cow scare could reduce the industry to rubble.
"It's not really a flip-flop, but more so a response to what is going on in the marketplace," says Dan Murphy, spokesman for the American Meat Institute, a trade association. "That's why we shifted gears...When you're in the business of marketing a food product and selling to consumers, if you don't have a solid core of consumer confidence in your product, you have nothing."
The potential disaster posed by mad cow disease was terrifying. As writer David Plotz posits in a January 2001 article in the online magazine Slate, mad cow disease fits the profile of a disease likely to ignite widespread panic. Diseases such as polio, AIDS and Ebola garner far more attention than other far deadlier afflictions such as influenza, diabetes and kidney disease because they are mysterious, afflict young people and strike in particularly gruesome ways. Mad cow disease, known in its human form as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, fills this bill. It kills by driving its victims insane before melting their brains into spongy mush. The disease is caused by a prion, an aberrant form of a normally harmless nerve protein that, once lodged in the brain, multiplies by inducing benign proteins to refold into deviant shapes, causing nerve cell destruction and riddling the brain with holes. Freakier still, prions do not trigger detectable immune system responses and have Terminator-like resiliency, resisting extreme heat, freezing, irradiation and normal sterilization processes.
Spread by consuming infected brain, nerve, intestinal and possibly bone tissue, the fatal disease carved an awful legacy across the Atlantic in the 1980s when 183,000 cattle were infected in the United Kingdom. It killed 140 people and forced the destruction of 4.5 million animals. When four cases of mad cow disease were discovered in Japan in 2001 and 2002, beef sales plummeted, meat companies went belly-up, two top agriculture ministers were forced to resign and a health official committed suicide.
North America has so far averted such dark turmoil, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture immediately deployed an array of strident measures that some beef industry officials say are overkill and consumer groups claim are not enough. Among the stiffer regulations announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on December 30 are the acceleration of national animal identification and traceability systems, a ban on tissues likely to harbor infectious agents from animals older than 30 months in the human food supply, a ban on stunning devices that can dislodge portions of the brain and infect meat, and a ban on downer cows in the human food system. To halt the disease's spread, the use of ruminant (cow, sheep) animal proteins as a feed ingredient for other livestock has been prohibited in the United States and Canada since 1997.
"I think it's fair to say the regulatory response the USDA put together in the wake of a single case of BSE was extraordinary in terms of exceeding in several areas accepted international guidelines," Murphy says. "Downer cattle are not solely the result of disease processes. In fact, they're more likely to be the result of accident or injury, which would no way endanger the safety or even the quality of the meat derived from that animal."