Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Kansas beef producer is in Washington this week trying to garner legislative support in its two-year battle against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will not allow the company to test all of its cattle for mad cow disease.

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC last month filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the USDA for refusing to allow the company to voluntarily test all of its cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, at its Arkansas City, Kan., facility.

The company is challenging the USDA’s claim that it has the legal authority to control access to and the use of the test kits needed to detect BSE, a fatal neurological disease that can be passed to humans who eat infected meat.

“Our position is this is something our customers want, and since when does a government tell companies how to market?” John Stewart, chief executive and founder of Creekstone Farms, told editors and reporters yesterday at The Washington Times. “We hope our government will come to its senses and allow us to do this.”

The USDA says there is no reason for 100 percent testing because the tests cannot detect the disease in animals younger than 30 months. BSE has an incubation period of four to five years, but is fatal for cattle within months of showing symptoms, the World Health Organization says.

Two leading industry organizations — the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — agree with the USDA.

Mr. Stewart said that is because his competitors and the government know that more testing means finding more mad cow disease.

U.S. companies last year produced nearly 25 billion pounds of beef valued at about $80 billion, government and industry estimates show.

The first confirmed case of BSE was reported in Washington state in December 2003 in an animal imported from Canada. The next day, more than 55 countries banned U.S. beef, which eliminated 35 percent of Creekstone Farms’ business, Mr. Stewart said, adding that he has lost $100 million in profit from export markets in last three years.

South Korea this week announced that it will resume beef imports from the U.S., but Japan, the top importer of American beef, has not. Japan lifted the ban in December, but reinstated it a few weeks later after a shipment was found to contain carcass parts that the country does not accept.

Mr. Stewart said his trip this week to meet with lawmakers represented the “very early stages of developing our legislative approach,” and he hoped to find a congressional champion on the issue within a few weeks. The USDA must respond to Creekstone’s lawsuit by May 23.

Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, would not discuss the lawsuit, but said the agency has tested about 700,000 of the “highest risk animals” in the past two years under the BSE enhanced surveillance program and found two positive cases: one in Alabama last month and the other in Texas last year.

An additional 20,000 animals showing no signs of the disease had been tested and none was positive, Mr. Rogers said. The agency tests about 1 percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually.

Creekstone Farm executives acknowledged that the tests were not foolproof, but argued that neither was the science used by the government because the disease is still being studied.

Mr. Stewart said the company gains more public support for its cause after every positive test worldwide, the latest of which occurred this month in Canada.

Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co. are the four biggest U.S. beef packers and control 82 percent of the market compared with Creekstone Farms’ 1 percent, Mr. Stewart said. He soon expects at least one of those companies to publicly support Creekstone Farms’ testing position, but not the lawsuit.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or make trouble,” he said. “We want to test our product above and beyond.”

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