Mad cow madness: USDA stands in the way of broader testing

April 26, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- If a hospital wanted to advertise that it upholds sanitary standards higher than any required by the government, no one would object. A used-car dealer who decided to offer only vehicles with the best crash-test scores would be free to do so. But after a meatpacker announced plans to establish the strictest program around to protect consumers from mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture replied: fat chance.

Eating meat from animals afflicted with the illness can cause irreversible, fatal damage to the brain. Last month, a cow in Alabama was found to be infected, the third confirmed case in this country. Canada, which has similar regulations to prevent the disease, has had five.

You would think those cases would indicate the need for more testing of cattle to keep contaminated beef off our tables. In fact, the USDA, which now tests only 1 percent of all slaughtered cows, is planning to cut back on that effort. Crazier yet, it also intends to keep anyone else from conducting more tests.

One company wants to do exactly that. Creekstone Farms, a premium meatpacker based in Kansas, knows bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, can be deadly for business. After the first American case was discovered in 2003, some 58 countries banned shipments of American beef, costing Creekstone about $100 million in sales.

Those countries were dissatisfied with the safety measures in effect here. So Chief Executive Officer John Stewart decided to address health concerns in places such as Japan and South Korea by going beyond what the U.S. government requires of packers. He pledged to test all his cattle for mad cow in an effort to reassure nervous foreign consumers.

What he didn't account for was that his own government would bar him from doing what his customers want him to do. Creekstone's plan, it said, would undermine federal attempts to "maintain domestic and international confidence in U.S. cattle and beef products." To let the company adopt a more stringent regime would imply the USDA rules were inadequate.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association agreed, complaining that "if you let one company step out and do that, other companies would have to follow." So last month, Creekstone filed a lawsuit requesting the right to cater to its customers.

Of course, if some foreigners have little faith in U.S. beef, a program such as this would improve their confidence - unless it finds the disease is more common than we thought. In that case, ignorance is not bliss.

It's possible that this innovation might give the company an advantage over other packers. But since when do Republican administrations oppose strenuous free-market competition? Other companies would have to follow only if the innovation proved successful with consumers. More likely, there is room for Creekstone's approach and less-stringent ones, too.

After all, the USDA allows the sale of government-certified organic food, but most shoppers still go for the nonorganic kind. The department says it "makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food." That doesn't stop it from allowing sellers to cater to consumers who think it is. So why balk when a company wants to ease fears about mad cow?

The government's attempts to justify its diktat are almost comically inept. The USDA scoffs at testing cattle younger than 30 months, insisting that the disease usually shows up only in older animals. It claims the rules on the use of animal remains as cattle feed are all the protection consumers need.

But more testing can't hurt and might help. Plenty of other countries require screening of cattle starting at the age of 24 months, and the disease has been detected in some even younger. Consumers Union says the recent cases in Canada and the United States prove the existing rules aren't doing the job. It thinks the Agriculture Department should mandate testing of all cows older than 20 months.

If Creekstone's clients want 100 percent testing and the company wants to give it to them, they may be wise or stupid. But in that decision-making process, there's only one place for the government to be: out of the way.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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