By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 4/14/2004 4:05:28 PM ET 2004-04-14T20:05:28

A small meat packer that wants to conduct private testing for mad cow disease said Wednesday it could test more cattle than the U.S. government for far less money.

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, of Arkansas City, Kan., said it can check more than 300,000 head of cattle for presence of the fatal brain disease at a price tag of about $6 million, or $18 per cow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest testing plan would attempt to check some 220,000 or more cattle for $72 million, or about $327 per cow.

"It's pretty ridiculous," Bill Fielding, Creekstone's chief operating officer, told MSNBC.com. "Unfortunately, logic hasn’t seemed to prevail in what's going on."

The USDA last month announced a one-time expanded plan to check for any additional cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as the disease is formally known, in the U.S. herd of nearly 100 million cows. The plan is intended for surveillance, the agency insists, and not food safety.

The plan does not set specific target numbers for the testing, which will occur over the next 12 to 18 months, but even if the agency tested all 446,000 of what it has determined to be high-risk cows — usually older animals that show signs of neural disease or some other ailments — it would still cost over $160 per head.

Fielding said the tests cost about $15 per animal — a number that matches estimates from California firm Bio-Rad, which makes the test kits Creekstone hopes to use — and the company projected another $3 or $4 in labor and other costs.

Last week, the USDA rejected Creekstone's request to conduct its own private tests on every head of cattle it slaughters. Creekstone had sought to do 100 percent testing as a way to reopen its sales to Japan, which has shut its borders to American beef since the first U.S. case was found in a Washington state dairy cow last December.

Only public testing?
The USDA insists that mad cow testing should be handled only by the government.  When it comes to food safety, the agency points to rules implemented shortly after last December's discovery as appropriate safeguards for the human food chain. Those rules, among other things, barred the use of so-called "downer" cows and certain "specified risk materials," like brain stems and intestines, from use for food.

Creekstone now estimates it is losing $200,000 a day because of the Japanese ban, and has laid off at least 50 workers. It says Japanese officials have indicated they would allow imports of Creekstone beef that had been tested. Japan is the only nation in the world to conduct universal BSE testing on all of its beef, though many other nations test up to half the cattle they slaughter. 

Even with the expanded testing, the United States will only be checking about 1 in every 185 cows, as the nation slaughters about 37 million cattle a year. Officials have repeatedly argued that Japan's demand that all beef be tested is overkill and not scientifically justified.

Major U.S. meat packers and many beef industry officials concur with the government and oppose private tests. They have estimated the costs of testing a single animal at $100 or more, and have opposed broader tests, arguing that it would be too costly to the industry. As such, there has been growing tension between major industry players and smaller operators like Creekstone, who can more easily test their entire production run.

In a Tuesday letter to USDA officials, Fielding and Creekstone CEO John Stewart urged the agency to reconsider its decision on private testing, and said they were "analyzing our legal options."

USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said it was too soon for the agency to provide comment. "We did just receive this today," Loyd said. "We're in the process of reviewing their letter."

The USDA has not told Creekstone what legal grounds it has to prohibit private testing, Fielding told MSNBC.com. While it might be governed by the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), its use as a food safety measure might also be governed by the Food and Drug Administration, a separate agency that regulates many food products. "When we asked them point blank … we did not get a straight answer and they avoided the question," Fielding said. "It just confirms that they may not have the legal right to do what they're doing."

APHIS is responsible for coordinating the current testing program, Loyd said.

'A consumer issue'
In its letter, Creekstone also proposed specific additions to the government's testing plan, including an expansion of testing to include at least 1 million younger cows, in addition to those already being tested.  USDA officials cite scientific evidence that the disease does not appear in cattle younger than 30 months, though numerous cases overseas have been found in cows as young as 20 months, including two in Japan.  Most U.S. cattle are killed younger than 30 months.

Creekstone also asked that the USDA approve a "BSE tested" label for meat, and add a Kansas state lab to its list of seven labs approved to conduct the public mad cow tests. Loyd said the agency was considering possible additions to its list. 

And Creekstone asked the agency for permission to send brain stem samples to Japan for testing.  Mad cow tests, which can only be performed after an animal is killed, check brain tissue for the presence of deformed prions, special proteins that can create holes in the brain.

Though Creekstone's plan could cost significantly less, it would not serve exactly the same purpose as the government's tests.  Its testing would cover only animals from the ranchers who sell to it, just a tiny fraction of the nation's herd, and its construction of an on-site testing facility in its Kansas slaughterhouse would minimize the shipping and storage costs that the beef industry believes will be an added burden.

But Fielding said the proposal to test 1 million additional younger cattle would help address a need for more widespread checks of the healthy U.S. cattle that actually make it into the food chain. He believes such broad testing would give U.S. officials a better stance to return to Tokyo and demonstrate that American beef is safe.

"This is a consumer issue, both in Japan and the United States for that matter," Fielding said.

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