Stateline Story

State Officials Inclined to Go Slow on Mad-Cow Legislation

The recent case of so-called mad cow disease found in a cow in Washington state last month is prompting state lawmakers to scrutinize their policies on livestock health, but most are taking a wait-and-see approach to any new state-level legislation.

Discovery of the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), generated a whirlwind of headlines, prompted new federal rules on livestock health and sparked concern about food safety and the economic impact on the country's beef industry.

BSE is a degenerative neurological disease found in cattle that have eaten feed contaminated with the infectious BSE agent. It can cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans that eat tissue such as brain or spinal cord from an infected animal. No cases of vCJD have been identified in the United States.

"Most of the people in Oklahoma have kind of a wait-and-see attitude," said Oklahoma state Rep. Clay Pope (D), a cattleman. "We've got until February until we go into (legislative) session and I think then we'll probably sit down and take more of a look at it."

The cow in Washington tested positive for BSE December 23 and a week later U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced several new safeguards to bolster protection from BSE, which include banning sick or "downer" cattle from entering the food chain. The federal government also said it will speed up implementation of a national identification program to track an animal's history. Such a system has been in development for the past year and a half through federal grants to a few pilot programs.

In general, governors from beef producing states are pleased with the federal government's response to the discovery of BSE, as is made clear in a letter penned by Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R) and signed by a bipartisan group of 10 other governors. The December 31 letter applauded the USDA's "swift, transparent and purposeful" action and asked the department to continue frequent communication with states.

"As governors of beef producing states, we stand ready to work with you in a coordinated effort," the letter said.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) was not among signatories but also welcomed the newest USDA proposals. However, he said he also wants state labs to be certified to test for BSE. Only one U.S. lab, located in Ames, Iowa, does such testing, The Associated Press reported.

Despite what these governors called swift action by the federal government, a few state leaders did take matters into their own hands. In Colorado, for example, the department of agriculture while stressing that the risk to the food supply was minimal temporarily closed the state's borders to all cattle coming in from Washington.

"A state is allowed to close its borders to animals from other states," said Carolyn Orr, an agriculture and rural policy analyst at The Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky. Colorado was the only state to do so, she said.

Another quick reaction came in Louisiana where state Sen. James Cain (R) said he would file legislation in the 2004 session to require cattle processors in the state to "hold and test" animals suspected of having BSE something he said the USDA's new rules now cover.

"I just thought that if the federal government wasn't going to do anything we should," Cain told Stateline.org.

Cain, a cattle rancher in Dry Creek, La., said he didn't think states would need to consider individual BSE protection measures if the federal government proceeds as planned. "I was just going to put (my proposal) in because the feds had been dragging their feet," he said.

Legislation will likely be introduced in Wisconsin relating to BSE, but the measure is not in response to the recent case in Washington. Wisconsin state Rep. Al Ott (R), chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, is helping to draft a bill that would create a premise registration system to trace-back an animal's history within 48 hours.

The legislation is not meant to get Wisconsin "out ahead of the federal government," Ott said, but he hopes it will allow the Badger State to serve as a model for the rest of the nation by establishing a system using the new federal guidelines.

CSG's Orr will host a meeting January 15 in New Orleans with the heads of state Senate and House agriculture committees to discuss BSE and its fallout, but told Stateline.org that she doesn't expect state lawmakers to propose measures beyond what the federal government has called for.

"As far as what state legislators can do other than monitoring the situation and providing their constituents with information, it's going to be very difficult because the federal government has jumped in," Orr said.

Oklahoma's Pope said lawmakers in his state might consider creating an emergency fund within the department of agriculture to prepare for an outbreak of BSE, hoof and mouth or some other disease that would require the quarantine or destruction of livestock. "If we could come up with the money, it would be something that would be well worth a look this year," he told Stateline.org. Kansas state Sen. Stephen Morris (R), a farmer, said his state might consider a similar measure.

The mad cow case also "is prompting folks to look back at country of origin labeling ... I am getting calls from legislators saying how do we do this?'" said Doug Farquhar, an analyst at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states Kansas, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota currently require labeling laws that identify where imported meat originated. However, the laws are very difficult for states to enforce and pose complicated administrative burdens, according to an NCSL memo. 

Tags: Health, Economy