Kansas struggles to test for mad cow

/ Source: The Associated Press

Days after the federal Agriculture Department unveiled its plan for expanded surveillance for mad cow disease, Kansas officials say they're scrambling to figure out how to find and test enough at-risk cattle.

Federal Agriculture Department officials said this week the broadened monitoring would focus on at least 201,000 animals that show signs of possible mad cow infection. Animals considered possible carriers include so-called downer animals that cannot stand at slaughter, cattle found dead on farms, or those with nervous system problems.

Under the new testing, Kansas -- the nation's second-largest cattle producer -- has been ordered to test more than 7,000 animals for mad cow disease, state Livestock Commissioner George Teagarden said. To him, that 47-fold increase over the 150 animals Kansas screened last year "will be a challenge."

"Considering downer animals are no longer allowed for slaughter, it raises the question: Where are you going to get them?," said Lisa Taylor, the Kansas Department of Agriculture's spokeswoman.

The department also plans to sample 20,000 cattle at least 30 months old that appear healthy, to see if the disease is present in animals with no symptoms.

Since Kansas slaughterhouses typically do not process animals older than 30 months -- especially now with the stricter federal regulations on their processing -- that further reduces the numbers of at-risk cattle population available for testing in the state.

USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said the situation will vary from state to state, and in some states agencies will have to focus more on outreach to get producers to call in sick animals. Other states may have rendering plants, pet food makers or salvage operations where samples can be collected.

The state's animal health department does not have enough staff to gather the needed 20 to 27 samples per day without dedicating its field staff to doing nothing more than mad cow surveillance, Teagarden said.

Kansas Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky said Friday he supported the USDA's expanded surveillance plan.

"I believe it will show that BSE is not widespread, and that it will bolster our efforts to resume beef exports," Polansky said.

Kansas animal health officials are expected to decide in the next week or so how to structure the program, but most likely the department will contract with rendering plants and diagnostic labs to collect samples.

Teagarden said he did not know Kansas' share of the $70 million the Agriculture Department set aside for the national program. But he said such testing likely will cost far more than the money allocated, once his agency factors in staffing, travel and other costs.

Opposed to private testing
What baffles many industry observers is that while the Agriculture Department spends millions for a government surveillance program, it continues to balk at letting Arkansas City-based Creekstone Farms voluntarily test every animal it processes for mad cow disease.

Creekstone said its customers have agreed to pay the added costs, though the nation's big packing plants have opposed the plan, worried that it could lead to false-positive results.

The Agriculture Department has yet to rule on Creekstone's request.

"The animals we want to test don't necessarily correspond with animals others want to test," Curlett said. "We are after a certain kind of animal -- the population most likely to have (mad cow disease)."

One idea gaining support among livestock producers is adopting a financial incentive program so cattlemen will take in sick animals for mad cow testing.

"We also understand livestock producers would like to get international markets open _ and we'll do whatever we can to help that cause," Teagarden said.

To Mike Callicrate, a St. Francis feedlot operator, the Agriculture Department's broadened testing is a "smokescreen" that was not going to work to reopen export markets. His suggestion: the government let slaughter plants such as Creekstone test all animals for the disease.

"This whole thing is such a bogus deal," he said.