Who are health officials trying to protect? | SierraSun.com

Who are health officials trying to protect?

Guest Column, Jeff Ackerman

Last week’s column on mad cows and civet cats [“Should we be eating things that lick themselves?” Jan. 21 Sierra Sun] drew a bit of interest from hungry readers.

For those who were eating at the time and missed it, I suggested that if we didn’t want to get sick from SARS or mad cow, we shouldn’t eat cats or other critters that lick themselves where they shouldn’t.

“Uhhh, it’s civet cats,” wrote one reader. “They’re not really cats at all, more like mongoose. And by the way, cattle lick themselves, too, although not quite effectively as cats.”

Great points. But I never said cattle didn’t lick themselves, and I still don’t think we should eat cats, even if they look like mongoose. I’ve seen what mongoose eat.

Another reader wrote that this mad cow madness is just another media scare tactic, reminding me that more people have died from swallowing tennis balls than from mad cow disease during the past 10 years.

Another great point, although I’ve never seen tennis balls on any restaurant menu. Nor have I ever been issued a press release from federal and state governments warning me that three Nevada County restaurants had been delivered and had probably served infected tennis balls.

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That’s what started this whole sordid mess in the first place. Some government official thought it was important to notify the media that three Nevada County food establishments had been delivered – and possibly served mad-cow-recalled beef. County health officials refused to name those three eating establishments, citing some memorandum of understanding (code of silence) they had with the state.

Turns out our county officials actually had a choice. According to the Sacramento Bee, when state health officials recently contacted Alameda County Public Health Officer Anthony Iton, informing him of five restaurants with recalled meat, he refused to agree not to name those five restaurants.

“I was shocked,” he told the Bee. “Here was critical public health information that I could get only if I signed a blood-oath not to give it to the public. That’s what I do for a living. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Sense? Mr. Iton seems to be expecting quite a lot from government cow-watchers.

California, it seems, is the only one of the six states with the recalled meat that struck a deal with the USDA in 2002, according to the Bee, promising in the event of a meat or poultry recall to not publicize where the product was shipped.

Makes you wonder who the health officials are trying to protect.

One state senator is considering a bill that would prohibit the state Department of Health Services from negotiating such a deal with the USDA.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling to think the state signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the USDA in order to receive information that they then can’t disseminate,” the senator told the Bee.

Mind-boggling? That’s exactly what the government is hoping for. Boggle our minds and our stomachs will follow.

In all seriousness, our chances of dying from food poisoning are far, far greater than from eating a mad cow or cat dressed like a mongoose. One reader correctly pointed out that 5,000 people die in the U.S. each year from food poisoning. That’s probably why another reader suggested we not touch, or eat, doorknobs.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The Union newspaper in Grass Valley.