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Meatpacker sues for right to do mad cow tests

Meatpacker John Stewart sued the U.S. government to provide it with cattle testing kits so his Kansas company can prove to customers, especially in mad cow-leery Japan, that its beef is safe.
/ Source: Reuters

Meatpacker John Stewart on Wednesday sued the U.S. government to provide it with cattle testing kits so his Kansas company can prove to customers, especially in mad cow-leery Japan, that its beef is safe.

Stewart’s firm, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, wants to test all its slaughter cattle for mad cow disease. Its suit in U.S. district court in Washington, DC, would force the Agriculture Department to give it access to test kits for the brain-wasting disease.

The suit was applauded by consumer groups. But USDA, which convinced Japan to drop its own universal testing program, opposes private testing of cattle. Mad cow incubates for years, USDA says, and “is not detected in young animals,” the bulk of the 35 million head of U.S. cattle slaughtered for meat each year.

Mad cow is always fatal in cattle. People can contract a deadly human version of the disease by eating contaminated meats. No U.S.-origin cases are known.

USDA says its tests show a low incidence of mad cow disease, formally named bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in America. Three cases have been found since December 2003.

Odds of finding a case through independent testing of young cattle are “very, very, very low,” Stewart told reporters. Creekstone wants to “provide an additional layer of confidence” to customers in markets like Japan by doing the tests.

“I would not refer to it as a (marketing) gimmick,” said Stewart, the founder and chief executive of Creekstone.

Creekstone filed suit while the United States was trying for the second time to persuade Japan to re-open its borders to U.S. beef and while USDA was preparing to scale down its ”surveillance” tests used to gauge U.S. levels of mad-cow.

The Consumers Union, which has called for USDA to test all cattle over the age of 20 months for mad cow, said Creekstone should be allowed to test for the disease.

“The fact of the matter is our food system is not fool-proof,” said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst for the consumer group. “There is plenty of room,” she said, “for additional steps to be taken. Why not give companies the right to do that?”

Critics in the cattle industry said Creekstone was trying to hijack food safety regulations for financial advantage. The American Meat Institute, representing meatpackers, said BSE testing almost always is a government function worldwide.

Public health is protected not by mad-cow tests, a USDA spokesman said, but by federal rules that ban the use of cattle parts in cattle feed and require the removal from carcasses of older cattle the brains, spinal columns and nervous tissue most at risk of carrying the infective agent for mad cow.

Not a food safety tool
Japan banned U.S. beef for two years following the first U.S. case of mad cow. It resumed purchases in late 2005 under stringent rules and suspended trade on Jan. 20 after finding forbidden spinal material in a shipment of veal.

USDA said it would press for re-opening of trade during discussions next week on meat inspection rules but Japanese officials say no meetings were scheduled. Japan has asked repeatedly how USDA will prevent more beef-trade violations.

In its suit, Creekstone challenged USDA’s use of a 1913 law to prevent access to rapid-screening tests for mad cow. USDA does not allow private testing for BSE.

“Testing is not a food safety tool,” said USDA spokesman Ed Loyd. “We are very confident the prevalence of the disease in our herd is very low.”

Since June 2004, USDA has tested roughly 660,000 cattle for mad cow, nearly all older animals and cattle with possible symptoms. The enhanced surveillance tests found two of the three U.S. cases. Some $105 million was alloted for the tests.

USDA has not suggested how many cattle would be tested under a “maintenance” program but it requested enough money for 40,000 tests during the fiscal year opening Oct. 1.

Based in Arkansas City, Kansas, Creekstone slaughters about 300,000 head of cattle a year, making it a comparatively small packer.