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Lawsuit Against USDA Blocking Universal Testing of Cattle for Mad Cow Disease Continues

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--Even U.S. Department of Agriculture lawyers need a vacation and that's why the department is asking a U.S. district court to delay proceedings in a lawsuit seeking to end the government's ban on private cattle testing for mad-cow disease.

Meat packer Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, the plaintiff, would prefer to avoid any delays, but has agreed not to oppose the time extension USDA is asking for, a company official said.

Joe Meng, a Creekstone vice president, said Thursday, "We'd sure like to move this thing as quickly as we can, but it looks like everything's going to be delayed a month."

The USDA's response to a motion for summary judgment requested by Creekstone is due to the judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Friday, but the USDA wants to push that deadline back until Sept. 22. Judge James Robertson has not agreed to the request yet, but Creekstone is not opposing it, Meng said.

The USDA says it won't be able to meet the current Aug. 25 deadline because some of its lawyers with "personal knowledge of many of the facts and information involved in this case" are on vacation.

Creekstone announced its intentions in 2004 to test its own cattle for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in an effort to win back Japanese buyers who were banning all U.S. beef. At the time, Japan was demanding the U.S. test all cattle for BSE before it would resume beef imports. The USDA said no to Creekstone, claiming control of the distribution of the kits needed for the tests, and rebuffed Japan's testing demands.

Japan began importing U.S. beef again in December 2005 without the testing it had previously demanded, but tight restrictions were placed on imports, limiting beef purchases to product from cattle 20 months old or younger.

There is still plenty of trepidation over U.S. beef in Japan, though, Meng said, and Creekstone would benefit from adding the extra testing that the company believes foreign consumers want.

"It's an opportunity to add value to the product," Meng said.

The USDA maintains that all U.S. beef is safe and testing is only a surveillance tool. Meng agreed that U.S. beef is safe, but also stressed that as a company they want to cater to their customers.

"That's how you build business," he said. "You satisfy the consumer."

Creekstone filed suit against the USDA on March 23, 2006, in an effort to do the testing.

The USDA has announced the discovery of three BSE-infected cattle in the U.S.

The first discovery, made in December 2003 in a cow in Washington state, prompted Japan, South Korea and many other countries to ban U.S. beef.

Japan -- once the largest foreign market for U.S. beef -- eased its ban in December 2005, but then reinstated it about a month later after a U.S. exporter shipped prohibited bovine material. Japan again began importing U.S. beef in July.

Source: Bill Tomson; Dow Jones Newswires; 202-646-0088; bill.tomson@dowjones.com