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Poster child for a safer meat industry



Monday, January 12, 2004

It's not just the cow that's gone mad. It's the system.

But don't take it from me.

Listen to the Seattle woman who looked the meat industry and feds in the face and told them to get their act together.

Her name is Suzanne Kiner.

A decade ago, she became a vocal critic of the meat industry after her daughter, Brianne, ate an undercooked hamburger at Jack in the Box and fell gravely ill.

When Suzanne read last month's news about the "mad cow" slaughtered for food in our state, she felt frustration. She hoped the U.S. food-supply network would have gotten its act together by now.

"It feels like 'here we go again,' " Suzanne tells me. "You just want to tell the meat producers and the Department of Agriculture to shape up. The industry needs to make wiser decisions -- not ones solely based on chasing the corporate dollar."

In 1993, when Suzanne's daughter got food poisoning, the culprit was E. coli O157:H7. The nasty bacteria strain in hamburger meat killed three Washington children and sickened about 600 others.

Fast forward.

Today the culprit is bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- or mad cow, which eats holes in the brains of cows. Humans who consume infected meat can contract a similar brain-wasting illness, though it's much rarer than E. coli.

But stack the recently discovered mad cow against the E. coli outbreak and you're still left with a troubling sense of déjà vu.

After the E. coli debacle, experts realized the meat industry could, if it wanted, practice bacteria testing -- but wasn't required to do so. The outbreak also underscored how meat plants processed carcasses with dangerous fecal contamination.

While the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service was responsible for inspecting slaughter plants, the service had no system in place at that time for quick bacteria tests.

It didn't help matters that Jack in the Box was slow to recall its bad meat. Court papers alleged the company knew about but chose not to follow safe-cooking standards.

The meat industry later resisted upgrades. And then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said it was his impression that top meat safety officials within his department considered the E. coli deaths to be "acceptable."

How unconscionable!

No human deaths have come from the sick cow slaughtered in Eastern Washington on Dec. 9.

But the case suggests that once again business concerns are trumping health concerns.

Meat industry critics have been sounding a steady alarm, calling current meat testing "inadequate." They say mad cow is in U.S. cattle but has gone undetected because federal inspections are so lax.

Even when the Holstein in Eastern Washington showed signs of illness, it was still sent off to slaughter before tests confirmed a problem. A commonsense "test and hold" policy could have prevented the languishing "downer cow" from entering our meat supply.

The government scrambled to establish a "test and hold" policy. It also banned the processing of downer cows for consumer plates. But those long-called-for moves -- meat industry critics even tried suing the USDA! -- came only after last month's public relations debacle from the mad cow case.

Before, the government's thinking was: Is all of this testing worth it?

But everyone -- from meat suppliers to federal regulators -- would do well to keep in mind the Kiners before answering that question. Their story shows the human cost paid for industry expediency and government flaccidity.

Brianne was 9 when she was stricken. E. coli damaged her pancreas and ravaged her large intestine. During a 189-day hospital stay, she had three strokes and 10,000 seizures. She lapsed into a coma. Her mother was asked six times whether she wanted doctors to pull the plug.

Brianne prevailed. She left the hospital, transformed, having lost a third of her body weight.

Her mom was transformed too -- into an activist. Suzanne went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the meat lobbyists and feds. Armed guards were around the building because of death threats against critics of the industry.

Undaunted, Suzanne walked onto a stage and pointed to empty chairs -- chairs, she told the crowd, that could have been filled with the smiling children E. coli had killed.

Assessing the current mad cow case, Suzanne hopes the government takes meaningful steps to prevent more empty chairs. "You can't have the Department of Agriculture policing itself," she warns, "because there is no counterbalance. It's the fox in the henhouse."

Today, Brianne has diabetes and needs 15 hours of sleep a day. She will need a kidney transplant in the future.

But after hundreds of hours of physical and occupational therapy, she is in relatively good health, a happy, humorous, spirited 20-year-old.

Brianne attends Shoreline Community College, enjoys playing fantasy video games and loves to ride her horses, Snoopy and Rio. She has her own apartment in Seattle and wants to become a writer.

Only one thing she says catches me by surprise. Brianne eats burgers.

"I've got to have my beef," she says, pointing out that her grandparents owned a cattle ranch in Eastern Washington that bred cows for slaughter. "Meat is in my blood."

She adds: "I don't have much food fear."

And neither would we -- if the meat industry and government put people first.

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