USDA and Beef Industry Giants Fight Small Producer Wanting to Ensure Safe Meat

Beef firm faces perplexing resistance to mad cow tests

By USA Today editorial staff 
First published by the USA Today, March, 26, 2004

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef is a small producer of high-quality beef in Kansas. But it’s making a big point about mad cow disease. It wants to privately test all of the cattle it slaughters for the illness, which can cause a fatal brain disease in humans who eat infected meat. The way Creekstone Farms sees it, 100% testing would reassure U.S customers. The company also says it is talking with Japan about restarting exports there, where total testing is required.

But the firm has run into surprising obstacles: from the federal government, which has pledged to do everything possible to detect the disease, and from the meat industry, which has scrambled to keep consumer confidence since December. That’s when the first U.S. case of mad cow was found in a Washington cow imported from Canada.

Their reasoning is as confounding as government foot-dragging over approving private testing. And it ill-serves confused customers who are looking for stronger assurances that the meat they buy is safe.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently does not allow such private testing for mad cow disease. And it claims that a new government testing system it approved this month is perfectly adequate. More than 10 times the number of cattle will be tested for mad cow under the new system, but the government still will be testing less than 1% of the 37 million cattle slaughtered in the U.S. each year. That falls far short of the 100% testing Creekstone Farms is proposing and Japan provides.

Other beef producers complain that Creekstone Farms’ 100% testing plans would set an expensive precedent. They worry that consumers might be misled into thinking an untested cut of beef isn’t safe. But food producers ranging from organic growers to free-range farmers already market their products based on the idea that food produced in healthier ways or with added safeguards is worth paying for. Creekstone Farms’ proposal taps into the same logic.

Other beef producers and the USDA say going beyond the new system is unnecessary. But hundreds of seemingly healthy cattle in Europe have tested positive for mad cow disease.

Rather than blocks on private efforts to strengthen beef testing, what’s really needed are tougher test regimens for all U.S. cattle. U.S. consumer advocates say this requires testing all cattle over 20 months, since current tests can’t detect the long-incubating disease in younger cattle.

In contrast, the new U.S. system will test up to 268,000 cattle over a period of 18 months, including all that appear sick plus a random sample of about 20,000 others.

Americans are willing to fund a higher level of reassurance. A January poll by the Consumers Union showed that 95% of adults would pay 10 cents more a pound for tested beef. Testing every slaughtered cow would cost about six cents per pound.

Scientists are developing promising, inexpensive mad cow tests, including a simple blood test. Until they are perfected, letting Creekstone Farms carry out full testing under USDA oversight not only seems reasonable, it also could provide an important measure of the usefulness of 100% testing.

© 2004 USA Today

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