By Jon Bonné
updated 3/9/2004 9:08:16 PM ET 2004-03-10T02:08:16

The federal government plans to increase testing for mad cow disease by tenfold or more, according to a testing company official. Such a plan would improve chances of catching additional cases, though critics say it may not go far enough.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to test between 200,000 and 300,000 cattle this year for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, said Fabio Rupp, director of North American operations for Prionics, a Swiss manufacturer of a rapid test for the disease used by many countries, including Italy and Switzerland.

That estimate is in line with reports this week on the agency's plans to increase testing.

The USDA has not released its new BSE testing plan. "We do expect to announce that soon," said spokeswoman Julie Quick.

The Department checked some 20,000 cows last year for the disease, mostly "downers" -- cattle that could not walk on their own. But after the discovery in Washington state in December of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, the government said it would double the number of animals tested to 40,000 out of approximately 35 million U.S. cattle slaughtered annually.

However, officials said last month they were reconsidering their testing plans and would soon unveil a new testing regime. The government tested 1,608 cows in January.

In order to expand screening, the USDA is expected to approve rapid BSE tests, such as those made by Prionics or by Bio-Rad, an American firm that sells tests to markets like Japan and Germany. Currently, tests take up to two weeks and samples are sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, the only U.S. facility approved to test for mad cow disease.

Quick said the new testing plan would likely include the use of additional facilities.

Rapid tests can return results in 24 hours or less, greatly reducing the time a carcass must be held before it can enter the food chain. Most nations that conduct active BSE testing now use rapid protocols.

Surveillance or protection?
Officials, Rupp said, must decide whether they intend to continue BSE testing for surveillance -- which detects whether a country's cattle population has the disease -- or for consumer protection, which is meant to safeguard the food supply and requires far more testing.

The U.S. program will operate as a surveillance system, Quick said.

Even if more animals are tested, the United States -- one of the world's largest beef producers -- would lag behind countries such as Ireland, which tests nearly 40 percent of its cattle, and France, which tests half of its cows. And the U.S. rules would still be far more lax than in Japan, where every cow is tested -- far more than the U.S. meat industry and some scientists say is necessary.

Japan was among the first of dozens of countries that banned U.S. beef after the first positive result for mad cow was discovered Dec. 23 in a Holstein cow from Mabton, Wash. The cow had been imported from Alberta, Canada, where there had been a mad cow case last summer.

The U.S. tests will continue to focus on sick animals -- including those that show signs of nervous-system disease and those that die on the farm -- but may sample some healthy animals, Quick said.

But critics say more tests won't necessarily detect additional cases because the focus remains on those high-risk animals. "It's not only the level of testing but what's going to be tested," said Michael Hansen, senior research associate at Consumers Union, which advocates random testing of cattle as young as 20 months.

Britain, where extensive testing since the 1980s uncovered over 180,000 cases, now tests all animals over 24 months and bars animals 30 months or older from the food supply. Most U.S. cattle are under 30 months old when slaughtered.

An international panel convened by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman recommended last month that tests on older animals, as well as high-risk cows, be "strongly considered." Some 7 million older U.S. cows enter the food supply each year, according to Hansen.

The panel recommended that more screening would bolster consumer confidence and could be tapered back if additional cases do not show up."If anything, there should be larger numbers initially," Hansen said.

Mad cow disease, primarily thought to be transmitted by using cattle feed made from the rendered protein of other livestock, often takes years to incubate, which has led officials to focus on testing older animals. But cases have been recorded in cattle as young as 20 months.  The feed in question has been banned for use on cattle since 1997 in the United States, but is still fed to other livestock.

Testing costs
Rapid tests for BSE detect the presence of prions, the deformed proteins that cause BSE, in nervous tissue, by coloring the abnormal proteins.  There are several versions, and USDA officials are apparently still considering which to use.

Some, known as ELISA tests, allow someone to process hundreds of samples a day.  Others, known as Western blot tests, are considered more precise; they perform multiple checks for BSE, but a single person can do only about 100 per day. The Ames facility currently uses comprehensive immunohistochemistry tests that require samples to be scrutinized under a microscope.

Rupp said his tests cost $12 to $16; with storage and transportation the total cost for a single cow is $30 to $40. The White House plans to spend $60 million in fiscal 2005 on mad cow testing, up from about $13 million.

The beef industry has been hesitant to endorse broad testing despite bans on U.S. beef, which it estimates is costing producers $1 billion or more this year in exports. Mexico, which bought $877 million in U.S. beef last year, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said last week it would lift its ban. 

Yet several smaller beef producers, worried about the bans, have said they would be willing to pay for private tests to ensure their beef is free from mad cow disease. Tom Ellestad, manager of the Moses Lake, Wash., slaughterhouse that processed the BSE-positive cow, said he would test all his beef.

So did Creekstone Farms, of Arkansas City, Kan., which announced plans to test all of the 1,000 or so cows it handles daily, of which about a quarter are exported. Creekstone, which said it had been told by foreign officials they would buy its premium beef if it adopted 100 percent testing, caused a stir among industry officials who insisted that universal testing was overkill.

Creekstone asked the USDA for permission to conduct its own tests, though federal regulations prohibit private BSE testing.

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