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USDA Obstructing Mad Cow Testing By Beef Producers in the U.S.

USDA Prohibits Mad-Cow Tests
By Outside Labs, Causing Outcry
March 9, 2004


Susan Brownawell, a mother of three, wants to be able to have her family's
beef screened for mad-cow disease. And Missouri rancher David Luker, who
supplies much of the family's meat, is willing to do just that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is all that stands in their way.

The USDA, which conducts only limited testing on its own, doesn't allow
private testing for the fatal brain-wasting disease in cattle, in part
because officials worry that potential marketing for tested meat would
confuse consumers. That is, if some beef is labeled as coming from cattle
tested for mad cow, it may imply that untested beef isn't necessarily safe.

Federal officials also say they fear that private laboratories would report
false positives, upsetting overseas customers and causing cattle prices to
crash. By keeping mad-cow testing within USDA walls, officials argue, the
government can confirm test results before they become public.

But with the first appearance of the disease in a U.S. cow more than two
months ago, pressure is mounting on the department to give up the government
monopoly on testing.

"This is ridiculous. If people want to have their beef tested, they should
be able to," says Ms. Brownawell, a Web page designer in Fulton, Mo. "Isn't
this how the free market works?"

The mad-cow discovery spotlights whether shoppers should be able to verify
the safety of their food however they want, particularly if the government
won't do it for them. The dispute pits consumer advocates and some beef
entrepreneurs against the USDA and big-beef interests.

The USDA's qualms about allowing private testing reflects the agency's
sometimes conflicting missions to promote the $27 billion cattle industry at
the same time it is supposed to protect consumers from bad meat. Indeed, the
USDA is respecting the wishes of most big meatpackers, which want a tight
lid on mad-cow testing. The USDA also has a vested interest in keeping
testing out of the hands of private companies, since their work could
challenge the Bush administration's position that mad cow isn't a problem in
the U.S.

The USDA's monopoly on mad-cow testing frustrates Mr. Luker, who owns
Missouri Valley Natural Beef, in Chamois, Mo., a company that sells
naturally raised beef door-to-door to customers such as Ms. Brownawell.

The mad-cow discovery prompted some of Mr. Luker's customers to ask whether
he tests his cattle for the disease, because consumption of tainted meat
products can trigger a very rare but always fatal brain disease in humans
called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. After a lot of phone calls, he
tracked down the USDA's only mad-cow testing laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Mr.
Luker says he asked the laboratory to screen his cattle -- a service for
which he is willing to pay -- but he says he was rebuffed and told that the
beef supply is safe.

"I think the question is whether the USDA has such a far-reaching right to
make such a far-reaching risk assessment for me," says the rancher, who has
160 head of cattle on his ranch. He says the inability to test for the
disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has
cost him at least one potential customer.

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, a meatpacker that slaughters cattle at a
plant in Arkansas City, Kan., in February said it would build its own
mad-cow testing laboratory -- an announcement that prompted a USDA warning
that anyone testing without its approval could face criminal charges.

Creekstone says it is trying to restart shipments to Japan, which insists on
100% testing first. The Bush administration's refusal to satisfy this
request is forcing some U.S. meatpackers to lay off workers. The borders of
more than 50 countries remain closed to American beef exports, which last
year totaled about $3 billion.

"If we can improve food safety, keep our customers happy and protect the
jobs of our workers, I would walk into jail," says Bill Fielding, chief
operating officer of closely held Creekstone, which is trying to enlist
support from Kansas's congressional delegation.

"Private companies should be able to test if they want," says Michael
Levine, president of the meat business at Organic Valley, a nationwide
cooperative of organic farmers. "I think the USDA is just petrified of
finding more instances of BSE," he adds.

Meat companies already screen their products for contaminants such as
pathogenic microorganisms and drug residues. But certain animal diseases are
dealt with differently, thanks in part to the Virus Serum Toxin Act. The
1913 law gives the USDA authority for ensuring that veterinary diagnostic
test kits are safe and accurate. The department has extraordinary powers to
fight livestock epidemics -- it can eradicate animals without the consent of
owners -- and the department claims the act gives it sweeping authority over
how testing for animal diseases is done in the U.S.

The only laboratory in the nation testing for mad-cow disease is the USDA
facility in Ames, Iowa. Scientists there analyze the samples collected for a
federal mad-cow surveillance program that last year screened one out of
every 1,700 cattle slaughtered in the U.S. They use a procedure called
immunohistochemistry in the search for signs of the disease agent, which
causes sponge-like holes to form in the cattle's brain. The process takes a
few weeks.

While the method for detecting mad cow is complicated -- there are no tests
that work on live cattle -- the federal government isn't the only entity
with the capability. Indeed, several state-run laboratories use
immunohistochemistry to look for chronic wasting disease, a similar brain
illness that affects deer and elk.

Testing for mad-cow disease is getting easy enough for many private labs to
do. Four testing firms make rapid diagnostic kits that can tell, in a matter
of several hours, whether a dead cow was infected. They're widely used in
Japan and in the European Union.

The USDA is preparing to license some of these companies to sell their wares
in the U.S., but the government may end up as their only customer.

USDA officials say they worry meat companies might mislead consumers into
thinking that cattle that test negative are free of the infection, of which
there is no way to be sure. The disease agent -- which distorts the shape of
normal body proteins called prions -- is present in cattle for years before
it reaches the brain, where it multiplies so dramatically that it can be
detected by today's tests.

"These tests aren't really designed to be food safety tests" but rather
surveillance tests, says Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian.

But regulators in other countries deal with this testing limitation by
simply forbidding BSE-free claims. That doesn't stop companies from saying
the meat comes from cattle that has been tested. In Switzerland, some
McDonald's Corp. restaurants advertise on paper place mats that the
hamburger comes from screened cattle.

The discovery of a single diseased cow doesn't scare most U.S. meat eaters;
retailers say beef consumption hasn't suffered. Still, a late February poll
by NPD Group Inc. found 22% of the 556 people surveyed were extremely or
very concerned about mad-cow disease. In hopes of reassuring consumers, the
USDA is close to announcing plans to test hundreds of thousands of cattle
this year, compared with about 20,000 last year. But any expansion won't
satisfy the consumers who want to know that the beef on their plate came
from a tested cow. About 35 million cattle will be slaughtered this year.

What's more, a controversy over the detection of the first U.S. case of mad
cow is fueling fears that the discovery was a fluke. The department's
testing program focuses on injured and ill cattle, called "downers," because
the inability to walk is one symptom of BSE. The USDA said the infected
Holstein cow was discovered at a Washington state meatpacking plant because
the federal veterinarian there tagged her as a downer.

But men who claim they saw the infected cow that day say she was ambulatory.
If the men are correct, say consumer advocates, the government's testing
theory could go out the window.

Phyllis K. Fong, the inspector general of the USDA, told Congress last week
that her office is investigating whether official records about the infected
cow were illegally altered.

Cattle contract the disease by eating the remains of infected cattle. That
can happen because the rendering industry grinds dead livestock into protein
ingredients for the feed industry. To keep the disease out of the cattle
population, the U.S. government bans feed producers from using cattle
remains in products meant for cattle, but critics worry that feed meant for
another animal could wind up being fed to cattle.

Write to Scott Kilman at

Updated March 9, 2004