U.S. bars Kansas beef producer from using rapid test on herd

Diagnostic for mad cow called `not warranted'

April 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The U.S. Department of Agriculture refused yesterday to allow a Kansas beef producer to test all its cattle for mad cow disease, saying such sweeping tests were "not scientifically warranted."

The exporter, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wanted to use newly approved rapid tests so it could resume selling its fat-marbled Black Angus beef to Japan, which banned American beef after a cow slaughtered in Washington state in December tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

The company has complained that the ban is costing it $40,000 a day and has forced it to dismiss 50 employees.

The Agriculture Department's undersecretary for marketing and regulation, William Hawks, said in a statement yesterday that the rapid tests, which are used in Japan and Europe, were licensed for surveillance of animal health - while Creekstone's use would have "implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted."

Lobbying groups for cattle ranchers and slaughterhouses applauded the decision, but consumer advocates denounced it, saying the department was preventing Creekstone from taking extra steps to show its product was safe.

Under a 1913 law called the Virus Serum Toxin Act, the department decides where cattle can be tested and for what.

Consumer groups accused the department of bending to the will of the beef industry, saying producers do not want to incur the expense of proving that all cattle are safe or the damage to meat sales that could result if more cases of mad cow were discovered.

Creekstone said it was "extremely disappointed" and frustrated that the department had taken six weeks to decide, and added that it might go to court to fight the decision.

Since December, Japan has demanded that producers who want to export there test each animal, as Japanese ranchers do. The U.S. beef industry and the Bush administration have resisted, and negotiations have become increasingly unyielding.

In Japan, splits have developed between restaurant and supermarket associations, but its Agriculture Ministry has remained adamant.

Consumer groups were critical of the department's decision.

"It is ironic in the extreme that an administration that's so interested in letting industry come up with its own solutions would come down with a heavy government hand on a company that's being creative," said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of the health research group at Public Citizen, a frequent critic of the food industry.

Lurie agreed that the Japanese demand for 100 percent testing was "irrational," since it included animals younger than 20 months. "But there is no shortage of irrational consumer demands - like cosmetic surgery or SUVs - that industry is only too happy to cater to," he said. "That's what capitalism does."

Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, another group often critical of the industry, said: "We're the ones who've been irrational on mad cow, because of the foot-dragging and refusals to test, our head-in-the-sand attitude. And now that it's brought us to a crisis, American farmers have no way of protecting their market."

A spokesman for the Agriculture Department, Ed Lloyd, defended the decision, saying, "We're working very diligently to re-establish our markets."

The department has changed its testing regimen to make a one-time attempt, beginning in June, to test 201,000 cows with symptoms of nervous disease or too sick or injured to walk, and 20,000 healthy older ones. The regimen assumes that cattle born before 1997, when a ban was imposed on feeding cattle tissue to cattle, are most at risk.

The president of the American Meat Institute, which represents slaughterhouses, and the director of regulatory affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents beef ranchers, praised the Creekstone decision.

Gary Weber of the cattlemen's association called 100 percent testing "misleading to consumers" because it creates a false impression that untested beef is not safe.

He compared it to demanding that all cars be crash-tested to prove they are safe.

Asked if American beef producers were content to give up the $1.5 billion Japanese market, he replied: "We're not going to give in to their demands. If that means in the short-to-medium term that we don't have that market, that's the price we'll pay. But in the long run, it means there's testing that's science-based and that creates a level playing field."

Asked if beef producers did not want to be pressured to imitate Creekstone and pay for more tests, Weber said it was "absolutely not about the money."

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