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USDA won't budge on meat testing case

From today's New YorkTimes:

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

The producer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wanted to use recently 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 last December tested positive for mad cow. The company has complained that the ban is costing it $40,000 a day and forced it to lay off 50 employees.

The department's under secretary for marketing and regulation, Bill 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 prove its product was safe.

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

....Gary Weber of the cattlemen's association called 100 percent testing misleading to consumers because it would create a false impression that untested beef was 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, Mr. Weber said: "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, Mr. Weber said it was "absolutely not about the money."

Two observations. First, Mr. Weber's statement that it's "not about the money" is an absolute howler. Second, perhaps the Japanese government has an unreasonable standard (a problem not foreign to this country). But to prohibit Creekstone from satisfying the Japanese standard seems actionable, even if a lower cost testing regimen were effective and feasible.

We noted this issue several weeks ago.