- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

Creekstone Farms ran into a very unlikely roadblock when it proposed to test 100 percent of its cattle for “mad cow” disease: the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency charged with the health of American livestock went so far as to tell the Kansas company that such testing would be criminal.

To Creekstone, a high-end beef producer and largest supplier of beef to the European Union, testing is about recovering business — particularly international business, which accounted for 35 percent of Creekstone’s total production and dried up overnight when the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) turned up in the United States in 2003. In March, Creekstone filed suit in District Court, claiming that the USDA argument entailed a “huge expansion of authority” derived from the 1913 Virus-Serum-Toxin Act, which was last updated more than 20 years ago.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said last week that the prevalence of BSE is “extraordinarily low.” We don’t doubt that U.S. beef is safe, but that is absolutely no reason to preclude a company from imposing another safeguard on its product, no matter how unnecessary the USDA believes it to be.

The Creekstone suit does not assert that the current safety protocols are insufficient. USDA testing is a part of a surveillance program, designed to give the agency an idea of how many infected cattle there are in the United States at any time. In the past 21 months, it has tested 647,000 targeted samples from more than 5,000 different locations. Creekstone wants to go one step further with testing based on a food safety model, where every animal is checked before it is processed. Despite a consensus among scientists that cattle of the age that Creekstone slaughters will not test positive for the disease because they are too young to have fully developed it, Creekstone believes that the test makes their product more marketable, particularly to international consumers concerned with the safety of U.S. beef.

Thorough BSE testing is not a prerequisite for reopening the Japanese market, but once that market is reopened, polls suggest that full testing would be a prerequisite for U.S. beef products to be competitive. Japanese consumers consistently show a bias for beef that has been BSE tested. Testing is not about an implied risk, but about marketing and rebuilding consumer confidence.

In the absence of U.S. beef, Australian producers have captured 85 percent of the Japanese market. If the export market does not fully recover, production will well outpace domestic demand, driving down prices. The U.S. beef industry clearly needs to be competitive in foreign markets, and if privately sponsored testing is what is required, the USDA should stop blocking Creekstone’s effort.

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