By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/9/2004 6:26:02 PM ET 2004-04-09T22:26:02

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rejected one meatpacker's plan to test all its cattle for mad cow disease, signaling that it won't allow private tests for the deadly affliction.

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef created a raging debate in the cattle industry by seeking government certification for its plan to test 100 percent of the animals slaughtered at its Arkansas City, Kan., plant.

"We are disappointed, but we are going to challenge this," Brad Caudill, Creekstone's senior vice president of marketing told MSNBC.com. Caudill said the company would have a more detailed response by Monday.

The agency's decision, made public late Thursday, was tensely awaited by the beef industry as a sign of whether the government would allow private tests for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal brain affliction that can also prove deadly to humans. 

Major meat packers vocally opposed Creekstone's plan, saying universal tests are not justified by science. The government also has opposed testing every cow on similar grounds, but had said it would evaluate Creekstone's proposal.

However, Bill Hawks, the USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement Friday that the government's public testing program is intended only to check for other cases and that "use of the test as proposed by Creekstone would have implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted."

Hawks added there was "no scientific justification" to test all animals because the disease does not generaly appear until animals are older. While most cases are found in cows over 30 months old, some have been found in animals as young as 20 months.

“We now know where USDA stands but are surprised it took them six weeks to respond with a 'no' to our request," Creekstone CEO John Stewart said in a statement.

More testing planned
USDA officials last month unveiled an expanded testing plan for mad cow disease that calls for up to 200,000 or more cows to be tested in the next 18 months.  The new plan is more than a tenfold increase over last year's level, but critics believe it still falls well short.

Many European nations test up to half the cows slaughtered for human consumption, and Japan tests every head of cattle intended for the human food chain. 

Hoping to restart its sales to Japanese markets, which have been closed to U.S. beef since the first U.S. mad cow case was found last December, Creekstone offered to privately test its own cattle, at its own expense. It estimated it was losing $60,000 to $80,000 a day because of the beef ban, and indicated that Japanese officials would allow imports of its beef if it implemented 100 percent testing.

Creekstone said it already set up its own private testing facility that would incorporate a test from California firm Bio-Rad and sent employees to France to learn how testing is done there. In the past few weeks, the USDA has approved four tests for mad cow; all but one were previously approved for use in other countries.

"Here when you have the market asking for something, you're saying no — with an approved test, no less," said microbiologist Michael Hansen, who studies animal diseases and food safety at Consumers Union.

Tokyo, which controls the biggest foreign market for U.S. beef, has insisted that U.S. officials test every one of the 37 million cattle slaughtered each year. The USDA has cited international guidelines and recommendations from a panel of experts it convened in January, showing that such broad testing was uncalled for.  Though only Japan tests all its cattle, many nations exceed the international guidelines cited by U.S. officials.

Still, U.S. officials cite scientists' recommendations that the tests should not be used as a food-safety measure as they are in some other countries, including Britain, where over 180,000 cases of the disease were found beginning in the late 1980s.  They insist other rules barring the use of some meat products, implemented after the first case was found in a Washington state dairy cow on Dec. 23, protect the food supply.

However, USDA approved seven state labs last month to conduct rapid tests for the disease that could provide results in about four hours, quick enough to prevent slaughterhouses from having to hold a carcass long-term. Tests, which require a brain sample, must be conducted after a cow is killed.

New USDA rules, implemented after the first case was found, now require processing facilities to hold carcasses while they are tested.

Looking for assurances
Many scientists agree it would be overkill to test every animal, though some have endorsed broader testing than the USDA has proposed.  Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the Nobel-winning researcher who helped explain the causes of mad cow disease, has endorsed universal testing. Prusiner currently runs a firm that creates tests for mad cow, though its tests have not yet been approved in this country.

Creekstone is not alone in suggesting 100 percent testing.  A bill proposed by California lawmakers would require every cow slaughtered in the state and all beef sold there to be tested for mad cow disease.

California State Sen. Michael Machado, chairman of the state Senate's agriculture committee, said last month that the only way to ensure the disease isn't spread "is to ensure that there's no introduction into the food chain, and that can only occur with testing every animal."

Such plans have drawn fire from many in the beef industry who believe the tests would amount to an added cost burden. While some other small meat packers have endorsed Creekstone's efforts, major producers and processors believe Creekstone's plan would set a bad precedent and  potentially leave consumers unsettled.

"We want a level playing field for all companies based on science," said Gary Webber, director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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