Food & Drink No cattle left behind

Lawsuit over mad-cow testing could affect world meat market

The latest battle over standardized testing has moved from the classroom to the slaughterhouse. Creekstone Farms Premium Beef is suing the United States Department of Agriculture because the USDA won’t allow the company to voluntarily test 100 percent of its herds for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad-cow disease.

Yet, the heart of the conflict could be less about the safety of America’s beef supply and more about control of the global meat market.

The USDA is invoking a 93-year-old statute, the 1913 Virus Serum Toxin Act, which prohibits the unregulated manufacturing and distribution of hog-cholera vaccines, to outlaw Creekstone’s proposed testing program. In the lawsuit, Creekstone is challenging the USDA’s authority under that statute.

“It goes against free enterprise to prevent us from doing this,” said Stephanie Barr, director of marketing for Creekstone Farms, a Kansas-based meatpacking company.

While it seems odd that the USDA would block a company’s efforts to verify the health of its herds, the feds are chanting the Bush Administration’s “based on science” mantra to oppose the testing. USDA Deputy Press Secretary Kristin Scuderi quoted Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns as saying during a recent news briefing, “Testing every cow is bad science. There is no scientific justification for testing every cow.”

Scuderi added that the USDA already “targets those animals at the highest risk for BSE where we are most likely to detect the disease.” High risk includes cattle with signs of a central-nervous-system disorder, such as emaciation, or downed cattle, those that can’t walk.

Matt Brockman, executive director of the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, which represents more than 12,000 members, echoed the USDA. “Texas producers want reasonable and sound science. The USDA has to have control over their job to ensure health of the nation’s herd. It would be like testing everyone in the U.S. for smallpox; it would waste a lot of money.”

According to the Organic Consumers Union, in Japan all cows age 2 years and older are tested for the disease. In the U.S., 1 percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually are tested. The U.S. has reported two cases of mad cow, one in Texas in 2005, and another in Alabama last month. It is thought that mad-cow disease is transmitted through feed that contains proteins from the nervous systems of infected animals. Worldwide, approximately 150 people have died from the disease.

The incubation period for mad-cow disease can be five years or more, so cattle younger than 30 months would likely test negative, even if they are infected. The USDA says feed bans, in place since 1997, have prevented the U.S. from larger outbreaks like those in Japan, Canada, and England.

However, the U.S. ban on feeding cattle products made from other cattle is imperfect. According to a 2004 Consumer Reports article, from August 1997 through 2003, 47 companies recalled 280 feed products that were in violation of the federal rules. By March 2004, the USDA had recalled an additional 130 products from five more firms for violating the ban.

Last year, the Government Account-ability Office issued a report stating there are weaknesses in the USDA’s inspections and monitoring of the feed ban that “undermine the nation’s firewall against BSE.”

Which brings the argument back to economics. If Creekstone tested 100 percent of its herds æ the cost, Barr said, is $20 a kit æ it would force major beef producers to do the same in order to compete, especially for the lucrative Japanese market, which represents 55 percent of all U.S. beef exports.

In 2003, Japan banned U.S. beef imports after mad cow was detected in an American herd. Japan eased the ban in December 2005 (reportedly under pressure from the U.S. government), but reinstated it earlier this year after a U.S. veal shipment was discovered to contain spine bones.

“I’m sure `Japan` would love to regain that leverage and force an approach on our exporters that would restrict product going to Japan,” Brockman said. “Their domestic producers would be happy and we’d be out of luck.”

By Lisa Sorg