Mad Cows, Mad Crowds, and Mad Courts

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Who would have thought that in the United States, it would be lawful for the government to prohibit a business from testing the quality and safety of its own products? As of this past Friday, that is the case — Court: US can block mad cow testing. First, let us look into some background.

Beginning four months ago, the city of Seoul came to standstill as hundreds of thousands of Koreans took the streets in nightly protests against the resumption of imports of American beef, fearing that it was tainted with mad cow disease. The case was best summarized by this May 9th headline from The Times — South Korean internet geeks trigger panic over US ‘tainted beef’ imports. Only the British could come up with copy like this:

Tens of thousands of young internet-obsessed South Koreans, whipped into a frenzy by alarmist television programmes, a complex scientific paper on genetics and a hyperactive online rumour-mill, have held candlelit vigils protesting against imports of American beef.

Believing that the meat carries a high risk of BSE and that Koreans are genetically predisposed to contracting the linked Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the online masses have taken to the streets, cursing America and demanding that their Government should act to avert catastrophe.

“I’d rather swallow potassium cyanide than eat American beef” became a popular slogan, quoted here in a May 7th article about some sensible folks at the time who called the rumors “unfounded or exaggerated” — Korean-Americans Try to Calm Mad Cow Fears. Deputy Director General Jean-Luc Angot of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) found the need to weigh in and pronounce American beef safe for consumption, as reported on in this May 19th report — World Body Speaks on U.S. Beef Row for 1st Time. On May 28th, conservative columnist Yang Sang-hoon spoke of the futility of injecting reason into the debate, saying, “No matter how you stress that no U.S. cow born since 1997 has contracted BSE, and that no American has ever caught vCJD, the human form of mad cow disease, 70—80 percent of the public believe that BSE-infected U.S. beef will be imported into the country” — Let Them Eat Beef.

The television show that sparked the controversy later came under scrutiny, and was quick to find a fall girl, who fought back, as this June 26th report tells us — MBC’s excuse maddens translator. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center had “ruled out the possibility of vCJD as the cause of death of a young Virginia woman who died earlier this year,” the show reported that she had died of the disease. “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” was wrongly translated as “human mad cow disease” and the producers argued that the “translation of ‘dairy cow’ as ‘mad cow disease-infected cow’ was not a poor translation, but a translation with interpretation.”

All this reminds one of the universality of the great H. L. Mencken observation: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” In this case, it was the opposition that endeavored “to keep the populace alarmed,” as it was widely suspected that the protests were organized by leftists unhappy with the fact that ten years of liberal rule had come to an end with the election as president of conservative statist Lee Myung-bak, whose new government barely survived the protests.

The response of his government was to ask America to go back to the free trade agreement negotiating table. The United States could hardly say no, with the South Koreans owners of so much of the debt amassed to fund Mr. Bush’s Wars. Senator John McCain on May 21st summed up the Republican position, hailing “an ally that deployed the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq, and has helped us in the rebuilding of Afghanistan as well,” and warning that this “partnership in a dangerous part of the world could be harmed by casting aside our trade agreement with South Korea” — McCain Throws Weight Behind KORUS FTA.

The result was a renegotiated agreement that specified the exact age and parts of the American beef to be imported to Korea, as sure an indication as any that Free Trade Agreements are, as described by Jeffrey Tucker, nothing more than “Mercantilism in disguise” — Free Trade versus Free-trade Agreements.

Amid the madness on both sides, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a heroic small company whose aim it is to “provide superior beef products to satisfy the most discerning of palates,” proposed a simple free market solution to the issue, only to meet government obstruction: “Bizarrely, federal officials have even sued a Kansas slaughterhouse to stop it from performing additional voluntary testing in an effort to regain skittish Asian customers,” reported a Texan editorialist on June 18th — Editorial: Korea’s beef with America.

The company was a pioneer in taking Small Farm Direct Marketing, which should appeal to adherents of both Distributivism and Austrian Economics, from a largely local form of trade to an international one. Creekstone Farms had lost about a third of its sales and was forced to layoff 150 employees when Japan placed restrictions on American beef in 2003. The company spent half a million dollars to build a lab and hire the necessary personnel to test its beef for mad cow disease, only to encounter obstruction from the USDA.

Last Friday, that obstruction was deemed legal — Court: US can block mad cow testing. Qui bono? “Larger meat packers,” we learn, “opposed such testing.” One is reminded of those whom “Ayn Rand referred to as ‘the aristocracy of pull,’ the principal villains of her famous novel Atlas Shrugged, i.e., corrupt businessmen who succeeded on account of their political connections rather than their entrepreneurial skill,” as mentioned by Justin Raimondo in a June May 29th article on the “new plutocrats” — Is War Good For the Economy?

Most laughable is the sheer baselessness of the ruling, a reminder that we have entered into an age of rule by law not rule of law:

A federal judge ruled last year that Creekstone must be allowed to conduct the test because the Agriculture Department can only regulate disease “treatment.” Since there is no cure for mad cow disease and the test is performed on dead animals, the judge ruled, the test is not a treatment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that ruling, saying diagnosis can be considered part of treatment.

“And we owe USDA a considerable degree of deference in its interpretation of the term,” Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote.

The Principle of Subsidiarity, which “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization,” is grossly violated by this detestable ruling. The tenet suggests that “any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be” and serves as “a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.”

Clearly, Creekstone Farms, or any business, is responsible first and foremost for the safety and quality of its products. For the State to infringe upon this right is as dangerous as it is absurd. This ruling is a sign of the dark times in which we live.

An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.

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