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Mirror of Justice
Why not test every cow in America for BSE (mad cow disease)? That's only common sense, after all. And even if the government's not going to require those tests, certainly they shouldn't forbid tests from a producer who wants to market their beef as being 100% tested. Right?
In fact, that probably makes so much sense to you, you don't even need to bother to read the government's side, to find out why the FDA wants to prohibit that private testing. Surely it's all government double-talk, really designed to either protect Big Beef or hinder private businesses with regulatory red tape (depending on your politics). And if you thought that, and you blogged off a rant about patent government lunacy, you'd be in good company. Prominent bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, and Justin Gardner of Donklephant all joined in knee-jerk attack on the Administration's position, as did many others. Glenn said: "Ok, this is stupid," and "Do we want China to be our model?" Hilzoy and Gardner took aim at Bush. Hilzoy: "Just when I think I've heard it all, this administration manages to surprise me again." Gardner: "More twisted logic from the administration that keeps me in stitches nearly every single day."
A beef producer in Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cattle for BSE, which causes Mad Cow disease, so that it can market its cattle as 100% BSE-Free. Contrary to the AP report, the government did not argue that this should not be allowed because of a concern for false positives, but because of a concern for false negatives. As the FDA pointed out in court, the average cow in the United States is less than 2 years old when it is slaughtered. But BSE has a 5 year incubation period, and only shows up on the test when the cow is but 2 or 3 months away from displaying symptoms of the disease. Europe only tests animals over 30 months old. Thus, such testing and advertising would mislead consumers, lulling them into a false sense of safety, while in fact the "100% BSE-Free" meat may be anything but. Stuart Buck goes into more details, but that's the gist.
So let this be a cautionary tale to new media. Don't rely on old media to do your fact-checking for you. That goes double for legal cases; Stuart Buck warns of the dangers of trusting anything a journalist says about a legal proceeding, and anyway you should be able to find the source documents quickly and report from them. Government employees aren't as stupid as common myth would have it, and they usually have pretty good reasons for doing what they do. You may or may not agree with the reasons, but there's usually a decent reason. When it looks like they've completely taken leave of their senses, take a couple of deep breaths and look a bit deeper, just in case.
But this should also be a cautionary tale to old media. Take a lesson from how the bloggers have reacted to Stuart's fisking. Both Glenn and Hilzoy have issued prominent retractions. I'm sure Justin Gardner will too, after it's brought to his attention (nobody in his comments has mentioned Stuart Buck's piece yet). But the AP? Nada.
Update: McQ at QandO also demonstrates the difference between old media and new with a prompt and thorough correction of his own. I've been guilty of the same sin before, and likely will be again, so when the time comes, I'll use these retractions as examples of how to do it right!
Update: As I expected, Justin Gardner has posted a similar retraction. Justin also engages in some thought on the merits of the FDA's actual position, and I engage him some on that issue in his comments.