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USDA in no hurry to scale back mad cow tests

/ Source: The Associated Press

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says he wants to persuade Japan to resume U.S. beef shipments before deciding whether to scale back tests for mad cow disease.

Johanns and his staff have indicated they want to reduce the level of testing, which was ramped up after the first case of mad cow disease appeared in the United States.

A decision will not come soon, Johanns told reporters Monday.

"We just haven't been in a hurry," he said during a news conference. "We would like to see if we can get things straightened out with Japan and some of our other trading partners."

Talks were set to begin Tuesday in Tokyo between department and Japanese officials. The Japanese market is worth millions of dollars to U.S. beef producers.

Japan blocked American beef shipments in January after inspectors found veal cuts containing backbone, which Japan has banned from its food supply. The cuts are considered safe to eat in the United States.

Japan had just ended a ban on American beef imposed after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, found in 2003.

"It is a very important market on both sides of the ocean, so my hope is that we can resolve whatever questions are left and work toward reopening the border," Johanns said.

Before deciding on a reduction, the United States will talk about testing with Japan and other trading partners and will consult experts on the disease, Johanns said.

About 1,000 tests are run daily, compared with about 55 in 2003. Under the department's budget proposal, about 110 tests would be run daily, or 40,000 tests annually. Officials say the number is merely a placeholder for budgeting purposes.

"There is a point here where we will define future surveillance. We will always have surveillance," Johanns said. "I just hate to even get pinned down to a date. Re-establishing trade is certainly ahead of that."

Government tests are the subject of a lawsuit filed last week against the department by Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a Kansas meatpacker that wants to test all its cattle for mad cow disease.

The department controls the tests. It tested around 1 percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered last year in the United States.

Johanns said the goal of testing is not to protect food from mad cow disease; testing is supposed to show how prevalent the disease is.

"We just don't see a scientific basis for that universal testing," he said. "We're trying to be fair in how we apply that; it's not like we can pick out one company or another company."

Johanns said universal testing could prod companies to spend time and money looking for a disease that is rarely detected in younger animals.

"It's incredible how much attention this gets, when quite honestly, every indication is that there's very little danger for the consumer, if any," he said.