The discovery last month of a case of mad-cow disease in California could be taken as good news.

The cow in question was found at a rendering plant, where spent animals are sent for processing into leather, soap, cosmetics and pet food. Tests detected the illness before slaughter. There was never any chance that meat from the cow would enter the human food chain. Cattle futures prices, which initially plunged, are higher now than before the announcement.

Agriculture officials say the animal was infected with an unusual form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the formal name for mad-cow disease, which they believe occurred spontaneously. It wasn’t, we were assured, the result of giving cows feed containing cattle brain and spinal-cord tissue, the route that infected herds throughout the U.K. in the 1990s. (People who eat meat from an infected cow can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal neurodegenerative condition.) The practice of mixing used organs and slaughterhouse scraps into cattle feed has since been banned in the U.S. and many other countries. It is one reason episodes of mad-cow disease now are so rare.

There may never be a satisfactory answer to how the California cow was infected. Yet the case is a reminder that the U.S. food safety system is in need of improvement, not just to prevent mad-cow disease, but to curtail outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that sicken 48 million Americans a year and lead to 3,000 deaths.

Cheap Feed

The federal government could start by ending the practice of feeding cows what’s euphemistically called poultry litter. Poultry litter is the spilled food, feathers, excrement, carcasses and bedding material that accumulates on the floors of commercial chicken barns. This material is far cheaper than corn, alfalfa or other feeds that have soared in price in recent years, and farmers use a lot of it -- 2 billion pounds a year by some estimates.

Because chickens aren’t susceptible to mad-cow disease, poultry farmers are allowed to use feed that includes certain cattle byproducts. In other words, cows can still end up eating feed containing cattle-waste products via poultry litter. The European Commission has banned feeding all forms of processed animal protein to farm animals. The U.S. should do the same.

The U.S. also needs a better system for tracking cattle. Agriculture Department officials initially had trouble locating the California cow’s offspring. (The one they found tested negative.)

The process shouldn’t have been difficult. Many countries - - including less-developed ones like Botswana -- tag all cattle, either with plastic ear markers or microchips under the skin. Information gathered from tagging can be stored in a national database and used to log veterinary records, exposure to disease and transport history.

The U.S. had promised a tagging program back in 2003, but it was never put into effect amid objections by the cattle industry over costs. An Agriculture Department study last year estimated the expense at between $5.5 million and $7.3 million, assuming it applied only to animals shipped between states. That’s a relatively small sum compared with the $32 billion in revenue generated in 2009 by the cattle industry; an outbreak of mad cow disease, of course, would come with its own public health costs.

A plan was sent to the White House for review after the California mad-cow discovery that would limit tagging to animals for interstate transport. The ranching industry supports this proposal. But any program should include all cattle. The sick cow in California never left the state and might have been exempt from tagging under the latest plan.

Slipping Through

The U.S. needs a more efficient overall inspection regimen. Of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year, only 40,000 -- much less than 0.1 percent -- are tested. This low rate raises the possibility that some diseased animals are slipping through. What are the odds that just one cow was infected with mad-cow disease?

The Obama administration in 2009 pushed for legislation to strengthen food safety, including more inspections of production and processing operations, and two years ago Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The rules to carry out the law were supposed to be in place at the start of the year, but have bogged down at the White House, one that’s perhaps consumed with election-year politics. The administration says it wants to get the rules right. And it’s true, business shouldn’t be overburdened with new regulations. There is no good reason, though, for these basic steps to protect food safety to be put on hold until after Election Day.

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