Friday, April 16, 2004

Company's Mad Cow Tests Blocked, USDA Fears Other Firms' Meat Would Appear Unsafe

To Creekstone Farms manager Bill Fielding, his company's idea does not seem unreasonable. In order to satisfy its very important customers in Japan -- customers the company needs to survive -- Creekstone wants to test for mad cow disease every one of the cattle it slaughters.

To do that, Creekstone has spent more than $500,000 to build the first mad cow testing lab in an American slaughterhouse, and it has hired seven chemists and biologists to operate it. The company made the investment after Fielding returned from a trip to Japan convinced that officials there would lift their ban on American beef -- imposed after an infected cow was found in Washington state last December -- only if American companies adopt the Japanese practice of testing every animal.

But there is a big obstacle in the way of Creekstone's mad cow initiative: The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not allow it.

The company has all the equipment it needs, but it does not have the kit of chemical reagents needed to run the tests. In the United States, the USDA controls the sale of those kits, and the agency ruled last week that only labs in the U.S. government's testing program can buy them....

USDA officials say that they sympathize with Creekstone and similar operations hurt by the bans imposed by Japan and other nations, but that agreeing to the company's request could imply there is a safety issue with American beef and usher in an era of expensive testing that has no scientific justification.

The issue is not the effectiveness of the testing itself, as Creekstone would be working under the auspices of an academic lab that the USDA has approved for mad cow testing. Rather, the agency objects to the very idea of testing every animal, including younger ones.

Following the advice of an international panel of mad cow experts, USDA officials say, the agency has put together an expanded plan to test as many as 250,000 animals over the next 18 months -- a national effort to determine whether mad cow disease is spreading through the American herd....

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