The U.S. government said Thursday it had been rebuffed by Japan in a proposal to work out joint standards to test beef for mad cow disease. Meanwhile, U.S. cattle producers backed recently planned testing increases, but vigorously opposed additional proposed tests to guarantee food safety.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a March 29 letter from Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to Japanese agriculture minister Yoshiyuki Kamei, proposing that both countries convene a panel of experts to answer certain key questions about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the fatal brain disease commonly known as mad cow.
"Much of the world is looking to our two governments to provide the leadership and establish the example of how this issue should be appropriately handled in the future," Veneman wrote.
Veneman, in her letter Monday, proposed an international panel to be convened by the World Organization for Animal Health, often known as the OIE, which sets global recommendations for animal health testing. Though Tokyo did not formally reject Veneman's proposal, vice agriculture minister Mamoru Ishihara said "I don’t think that it is appropriate” to involve the group in trade discussions.
Several years ago, the organization set baseline testing requirements of just a few hundred cattle per year for the United States, a figure U.S. officials often cite in pointing out the adequacy of their testing efforts prior to the Dec. 23 discovery.
Veneman said Thursday she was "disappointed" in the Japanese response.
“We have submitted our system and measures to scrutiny by international experts and see no reason why Japan should be reluctant to do likewise," she said in a statement.
Japan has banned U.S. beef since the first case of mad cow disease was revealed Dec. 23 in a Mabton, Wash., dairy cow. The Japanese require all cattle to be tested for the disease before they can enter the human food chain, and has insisted that the United States implement universal testing before the ban can be lifted.
The USDA, and many in the beef industry, insist that scientific evidence does not justify 100-percent testing. Cattle industry leaders, speaking Thursday as they visited Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers, largely endorsed an expanded testing plan proposed by federal officials.
But they again rejected the notion of broad-based cattle testing, even if it would prompt Japan and other trading partners to start importing U.S. beef again.
"Nobody wants unnecessary, burdensome things that don’t necessarily accomplish what they’re intended to accomplish," said Jim McAdams, a rancher from Lubbock, Tex., and president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
And Terry Stokes, the NCBA's chief executive, said Japanese government and beef industry officials had signaled they now "wish they hadn't done 100 percent testing," though he did not elaborate.
But some scientists have endorsed universal testing. Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the Nobel-winning researcher who found the link between malformed proteins known as prions and diseases like mad cow, recently said all cattle should be tested. His testing firm, InPro, supports that view, though other firms that produce BSE testing kits do not advocate such measures.
“Dr. Prusiner has a different opinion” than many other researchers, said Chandler Keys, the NCBA’s vice president for government affairs.
While Japan has become a sparring partner with the United States on the issue, other nations also believe in broader testing. Many European nations test as much as half the cows slaughtered.
And several smaller American meat packers, notably Kansas' Creekstone Farms, have said they would test all their animals if it meant a resumption of exports. The USDA has said such moves would be illegal, though Creekstone has applied to do its own private testing.
'Only for animal disease'
Beef association officials share the government's view that broader testing would be unnecessary and unreasonable.
"Testing for BSE should be related to surveillance," Stokes said. "We feel that USDA should be the ones to do the testing and to do testing only for animal disease."
As for Creekstone's request, Stokes said, "The bottom line is, they're not satisfying the Japanese customer, they're satisfying the Japanese government."
Stokes and other industry officials noted that scientists, including an earlier international panel of experts convened in January by Veneman, had largely backed the U.S. approach to handling BSE.
Veneman proposed Monday that the new panel could evaluate appropriate measures to check for BSE in animals and set requirements for both countries to follow by the end of April. Ishihara said that timeline was "unrealistic."
The USDA announced last month it expects to test more than 200,000 cattle in the next 18 months, mostly sick or ailing cows, to look for additional cases of BSE. Industry officials on Thursday echoed the agency's stance that the tests are intended only as a scientific measure and not to guarantee food safety. Rather, they insist the human food chain is secured by new rules that ban the use of "downers" — cows that cannot walk — and so-called specified risk materials, such as an animal's brain or spinal cord.
"As this goes forward we do anticipate that there might be some additional cases," said Jan Lyons, a Kansas cattle producer and the NCBA's current president. "We do feel very strongly that we have the precautions in place."
Prices on the rebound
Lyons also said the cattle industry is confident it can emerge unscathed from months of global bans on U.S. beef. "Certainly we have challenges facing us," she said. But, she noted, "The state of the cattle industry is in extremely solid, good condition."
Immediately after the U.S. mad cow case was found, the association projected potential industry losses of $1.3 billion. But some beef processors, including Tyson, the world’s largest, have since shown profits. And though wholesale beef prices dipped early this year, they are rebounding. Plus, surveys show consumer demand remains strong and the USDA projects consumption will be up this year to 28.5 billion pounds, or 68 pounds per person, from 26.8 billion pounds in 2003.
“We have taken every step possible to ensure this does not put our consumers at risk,” Stokes said, “and consumers have seen it.”
Andy Gottschalk, livestock analyst for Hedgersedge.com, said beef prices — both wholesale and retail — will follow their usual patterns this year, including a surge in late spring and a drop in the summer. Though some premium beef normally be exported to Japan and other markets must be consumed domestically, he noted, the industry has taken steps to accommodate that.
“Our production has been pulled down so everything has been adjusted to that,” Gottschalk said. About 92 million pounds of beef a day was processed in March, according to data from the USDA and Kansas State University, compared to 96 million a year ago — with about 125,000 cattle slaughtered per day, down from 130,000 a year ago.
Still, industry officials said they are pushing to restore the U.S. market to its status before last summer, when the first North American mad cow case was found in Alberta, Canada. That led to a U.S. ban on most Canadian beef, one that U.S. cattle producers say they want lifted, though the closed border helped increase demand for American beef. The single infected Holstein cow in Washington state originally came from Alberta, and Canadian authorities recently said they traced both mad cow cases to two feed mills in Canada.
"We're all about trying to get back to pre-BSE situations," said Keys.