- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman told Congress yesterday that regaining export markets for U.S. beef is a top priority for the Bush administration.

“U.S. beef is safe for consumers in the United States and around the world, and we are urging our trading partners to base their decisions on science,” Mrs. Veneman said at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, the first congressional inquiry on mad cow disease since the December announcement.

Mrs. Veneman announced the United States’ first case of mad cow disease on Dec. 23, prompting Japan, Mexico, Korea and 49 other markets worth more than $3 billion annually to restrict U.S. beef sales. Formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), mad cow is a chronic, degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system of cattle and has been linked to a fatal brain-wasting disease in humans.

Mrs. Veneman said the United States is taking scientifically proven steps to eliminate risks of the disease spreading.

U.S. agriculture officials were in Tokyo yesterday as part of the effort to reassure trade partners that American beef is safe, but Mrs. Veneman reported no significant progress.

Japan’s government, meanwhile, ordered meat wholesalers not to sell hundreds of tons of American beef products imported before the mad cow-related ban, the Associated Press reported.

The order affects 862 tons of beef considered to be the riskiest in cows infected with mad cow, such as soup stocks and other products containing bone parts, calf brains and other parts, AP reported.

Japan, the largest market for U.S. beef, wants the U.S. government to implement a BSE testing system similar to its own, in which all animals entering the human food chain are screened for the disease.

“That is not something we think is based on sound science,” Mrs. Veneman said.

But she said she is hopeful that Mexico, one of the top three export markets for U.S. beef, soon will act to reopen its market to some cuts of meat.

Although trade partners want the Bush administration to implement stronger measures against BSE-related concerns, some members of Congress yesterday questioned whether Mrs. Veneman had erred by banning so-called downer animals from the human food chain.

Downers are cattle that are too sick or badly injured to walk. The inability to walk is a symptom of mad cow disease and the animals had been tested regularly for the ailment at slaughterhouses. The lone animal that tested positive was a downer. It was tested when it was slaughtered and shipped to consumers.

Under USDA policy announced Dec. 30, those animals can no longer be sent to slaughter.

“The fact is that if the secretary’s current policy had been in place previously, we would not even have found this BSE-infected cow,” Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the agriculture committee, said.

A measure to ban downers narrowly was defeated in Congress in November. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, yesterday introduced legislation to ban the sale of meat from all downers — sheep, pigs, goats and other livestock. The law also would make permanent the USDA regulation for cattle that took effect on Dec. 30.

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