The brown-and-white spotted calves appear happy and healthy as they amble through the tall grass of a northeastern Kansas field, never straying far from their mothers.
The brown-and-white spotted calves appear happy and healthy as they amble through the tall grass of a northeastern Kansas field, never straying far from their mothers.But back at the barn — and in countless barns, feedlots, slaughterhouses and packing plants around the United States — the health of cattle like these has become a hot-button issue.Calls for widespread testing of the nation’s beef supply have stretched from Tokyo to Arkansas City, Kansas, after the United States detected its first-ever case of “mad cow disease” last December.The news sent shock waves through domestic markets and triggered an immediate halt to important international trade, including deals with Japan, which typically buys about $1.4 billion of U.S. beef annually.Still, the U.S. government has refused to support widespread testing of the nation’s cattle herds. Instead, the Agriculture Department has launched a limited voluntary testing program that its own inspector general said may be scientifically invalid.Critics are also accusing the government of favoring big businesses that oppose extensive testing, at the expense of small cattle companies that back it.”It is truly a mess,” said Thomas McGarity, who teaches food safety law at the University of Texas and heads the Center for Progressive Regulation think tank.RARE BUT FEAREDBovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow, is feared around the world because it can trigger fatal brain disorders in humans if they eat certain tissue from an infected animal. But the brain-wasting disease is rare, and transmissions to humans are even more uncommon. The only known U.S. case was found in a cow in Washington state.Japan and many other countries routinely test their slaughtered cattle for the disease and have demanded that beef they buy from the United States must prove free of mad cow.But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says widespread testing is unnecessary. Its new “surveillance” program, expected to cost taxpayers $70 million, aims to test about 270,000 animals in the next 18 months, compared with about 35 million slaughtered annually. Only animals that show certain symptoms will be tested through the program, which depends on voluntary participation.As of Monday, some 23,000 cattle had been tested, with no detection of the disease. The government hopes to show it is virtually nonexistent in U.S. herds.”The testing is a one-time enhanced surveillance program where we will test as many as we physically can,” said USDA spokesman Jim Rogers. “It will give us a snapshot of our animal health among that population.”But criticism is rapidly growing louder.In an audit released earlier this month, the USDA inspector general said the testing program was poorly designed, falsely assumed only high-risk animals could be infected, and inappropriately relied on voluntary submissions for testing.Last week, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa requested an investigation, saying the government’s strategy appeared to be “stumbling.”And of the 12 university-based laboratories designated to handle the testing, five that were supposed to be operating by June 1 still have not received the green light by the USDA to get underway.Meanwhile, in trade talks this month, the Japanese continued to insist that all the beef they buy must test free of mad cow.CAPITALISM HELD CAPTIVE?Some private beef companies who have seen their profits sink because of lost sales to Japan have asked the USDA to allow them to buy government-licensed kits that they could use to test their entire herds at their own expense. They believe they could then market the beef as free of the disease and restart their Asian sales.But the government has refused those requests. The Organization for Competitive Markets, an independent farmers group out of Nebraska, and other critics say the USDA’s position favor corporate agriculture over small businesses.The large processors that supply a mostly unconcerned domestic market have not seen their businesses suffer the way specialty suppliers of beef have, and critics say they don’t want to pay for increased testing or have to compete with companies that do. Those representing the U.S. meat industry say the U.S. government’s testing program is more than adequate.”We’re confident in the statistical confidence of the program,” said American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley. “We think it is an extremely comprehensive program.”Riley said widespread testing of young and otherwise healthy animals would be unscientific and largely pointless, and allowing private companies to test their own animals would be unprecedented.As the controversy brews around them, officials at beef companies in Kansas and Missouri say the situation is eating up their profits.”We think it’s ridiculous,” said Russ Kremer, chief executive of Overland, Missouri-based Gateway Beef Cooperative. “If a customer demands a little more assurance on the safety of a product and we’re willing to do it, then that should happen.” (Source: Reuters, July 2004)