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USDA Threatens Beef Company Planning to Test All Cows for Mad Cow Disease

Creekstone lays plans to test 100 percent, bust through beef ban


by Daniel Yovich <dyovich@meatingplace.com>
on 2/26/04
<www.Meatingplace.com>

Creekstone Farms is planning to test every animal it processes at the company's Arkansas City, Kan., plant for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a plan that the company said will reopen Asian markets exclusively to their Black Angus beef products.

However, the proposal is reportedly generating a firestorm of controversy at the Agriculture Department and has not been warmly embraced by some industry associations.

Creekstone COO Bill Fielding says the company is reviewing testing protocols with a privately owned laboratory, which Fielding declined to identify, and said he has received assurances from Asian trade officials and customers that Japan and South Korea would accept Creekstone's product if the company's testing protocols meet those countries' requirements.

But USDA officials fear the impact on the entire market of any false positive tests that the agency says could occur, and said Creekstone would not "have the legal right to market" product as originating from cattle that have been privately tested.

Fielding, a 26-year-veteran of the meat industry, said Creekstone believes USDA might lack the authority to prevent the company from the testing. Creekstone officials said they have already won support from at least one congressman and several senators, and that the company is prepared to fight any attempt to prevent it from implementing testing of all the animals it harvests.

"We have asked USDA to give us one -- just one -- really good reason why they oppose this, and all we've heard from them is that they're reviewing this," said Fielding, who previously served as president of Farmland Industries' refrigerated foods group, as chairman and director of the American Meat Institute and as president of ConAgra Foods' refrigerated meat group.

USDA: "We're looking at it"

"They have not done so. What we keep hearing is, 'we're looking at it.' Well that pretty well sums up the problem at USDA. They're looking instead of doing."

Creekstone Farms purchased its state-of-the-art beef processing plant during bankruptcy proceedings for Future Beef Operations in January 2003. Fielding says the testing will add about $20 to the cost of processing each animal, and the cost for the testing will be passed along to customers. Creekstone kills about 1,000 cattle each day, and Fielding said about 15 percent of the company's business last year came from exports.

Creekstone Farms President John Stewart first broached the idea to implement total testing at USDA's annual outlook forum last week. He said he's asked USDA for speedy approval of the BSE testing method that would be used at Creekstone Farms' beef plant.

While Japan's government, various activist groups and even some politicians have said they favor testing all animals, USDA officials have said the step is not needed because the disease is found in older animals.

A criminal act?

If Creekstone goes forward, there would likely be legal battle, including criminal charges. Lisa Ferguson, a senior staff veterinarian at USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said Creekstone would be violating the Virus Serum Toxin Act, passed in 1913, which mandates APHIS as the agency tasked with reviewing and licensing animal diagnostic test kits. A review of the act shows it does not specifically mention diagnostic tests, but specifically prohibits the production, marketing and use of any virus, serum, toxin or analogous product for use in the treatment of domestic animals.

Someone convicted of violating the act can be convicted of a misdemeanor criminal offense and fined not more than $1,000 and/or jailed for up to one year.

"We are accepting applications and are reviewing the data for some rapid tests," Ferguson said. "But that can be a long and extensive process. The review process would also determine under what circumstances the test might be used. But none of that has been determined."

Not waiting around

Fielding said Creekstone does not agree with USDA's position, and that they intend to test every animal as soon as they are able to reach an agreement with the lab that will conduct the tests.

"We are looking at this as we would a customer request," Fielding said. "We will likely use the exact same test that are being used in Japan and South Korea. We absolutely want to work with USDA. We also want to test every animal."

U.S. beef exports, valued last year at $3.8 billion, have plunged since Dec. 23 when the government disclosed that a single case of BSE had been found in Washington state.

More than 40 countries, including Japan, Mexico and South Korea — the three largest buyers of U.S. beef — have banned imports of the meat. The U.S. will import a record 3.3 billion pounds of beef in 2004, the USDA predicted, up 10 percent from 2003 and up 3 percent over 2002.