USDA Prohibits Mad-Cow Tests
By Outside Labs, Causing Outcry
By SCOTT KILMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Susan Brownawell, a mother of three, wants to be able to have her family's beef screened for mad-cow disease. And Missouri rancher David Luker, who supplies much of the family's meat, is willing to do just that.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is all that stands in their way.
The USDA, which conducts only limited testing on its own, doesn't allow private testing for the fatal brain-wasting disease in cattle, in part because officials worry that potential marketing for tested meat would confuse consumers. That is, if some beef is labeled as coming from cattle tested for mad cow, it may imply that untested beef isn't necessarily safe.
Federal officials also say they fear that private laboratories would report false positives, upsetting overseas customers and causing cattle prices to crash. By keeping mad-cow testing within USDA walls, officials argue, the government can confirm test results before they become public.
But with the first appearance of the disease in a U.S. cow more than two months ago, pressure is mounting on the department to give up the government monopoly on testing.
"This is ridiculous. If people want to have their beef tested, they should be able to," says Ms. Brownawell, a Web page designer in Fulton, Mo. "Isn't this how the free market works?"
The mad-cow discovery spotlights whether shoppers should be able to verify the safety of their food however they want, particularly if the government won't do it for them. The dispute pits consumer advocates and some beef entrepreneurs against the USDA and big-beef interests.
The USDA's qualms about allowing private testing reflects the agency's sometimes conflicting missions to promote the $27 billion cattle industry at the same time it is supposed to protect consumers from bad meat. Indeed, the USDA is respecting the wishes of most big meatpackers, which want a tight lid on mad-cow testing. The USDA also has a vested interest in keeping testing out of the hands of private companies, since their work could challenge the Bush administration's position that mad cow isn't a problem in the U.S.
The USDA's monopoly on mad-cow testing frustrates Mr. Luker, who owns Missouri Valley Natural Beef, in Chamois, Mo., a company that sells naturally raised beef door-to-door to customers such as Ms. Brownawell.
The mad-cow discovery prompted some of Mr. Luker's customers to ask whether he tests his cattle for the disease, because consumption of tainted meat products can trigger a very rare but always fatal brain disease in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. After a lot of phone calls, he tracked down the USDA's only mad-cow testing laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Mr. Luker says he asked the laboratory to screen his cattle -- a service for which he is willing to pay -- but he says he was rebuffed and told that the beef supply is safe.
"I think the question is whether the USDA has such a far-reaching right to make such a far-reaching risk assessment for me," says the rancher, who has 160 head of cattle on his ranch. He says the inability to test for the disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has cost him at least one potential customer.
Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, a meatpacker that slaughters cattle at a plant in Arkansas City, Kan., in February said it would build its own mad-cow testing laboratory -- an announcement that prompted a USDA warning that anyone testing without its approval could face criminal charges.
Creekstone says it is trying to restart shipments to Japan, which insists on 100% testing first. The Bush administration's refusal to satisfy this request is forcing some U.S. meatpackers to lay off workers. The borders of more than 50 countries remain closed to American beef exports, which last year totaled about $3 billion.
"If we can improve food safety, keep our customers happy and protect the jobs of our workers, I would walk into jail," says Bill Fielding, chief operating officer of closely held Creekstone, which is trying to enlist support from Kansas's congressional delegation.
"Private companies should be able to test if they want," says Michael Levine, president of the meat business at Organic Valley, a nationwide cooperative of organic farmers. "I think the USDA is just petrified of finding more instances of BSE," he adds.
Meat companies already screen their products for contaminants such as pathogenic microorganisms and drug residues. But certain animal diseases are dealt with differently, thanks in part to the Virus Serum Toxin Act. The 1913 law gives the USDA authority for ensuring that veterinary diagnostic test kits are safe and accurate. The department has extraordinary powers to fight livestock epidemics -- it can eradicate animals without the consent of owners -- and the department claims the act gives it sweeping authority over how testing for animal diseases is done in the U.S.
The only laboratory in the nation testing for mad-cow disease is the USDA facility in Ames, Iowa. Scientists there analyze the samples collected for a federal mad-cow surveillance program that last year screened one out of every 1,700 cattle slaughtered in the U.S. They use a procedure called immunohistochemistry in the search for signs of the disease agent, which causes sponge-like holes to form in the cattle's brain. The process takes a few weeks.
While the method for detecting mad cow is complicated -- there are no tests that work on live cattle -- the federal government isn't the only entity with the capability. Indeed, several state-run laboratories use immunohistochemistry to look for chronic wasting disease, a similar brain illness that affects deer and elk.
Testing for mad-cow disease is getting easy enough for many private labs to do. Four testing firms make rapid diagnostic kits that can tell, in a matter of several hours, whether a dead cow was infected. They're widely used in Japan and in the European Union.
The USDA is preparing to license some of these companies to sell their wares in the U.S., but the government may end up as their only customer.
USDA officials say they worry meat companies might mislead consumers into thinking that cattle that test negative are free of the infection, of which there is no way to be sure. The disease agent -- which distorts the shape of normal body proteins called prions -- is present in cattle for years before it reaches the brain, where it multiplies so dramatically that it can be detected by today's tests.
"These tests aren't really designed to be food safety tests" but rather surveillance tests, says Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian.
But regulators in other countries deal with this testing limitation by simply forbidding BSE-free claims. That doesn't stop companies from saying the meat comes from cattle that has been tested. In Switzerland, some McDonald's Corp. restaurants advertise on paper place mats that the hamburger comes from screened cattle.
The discovery of a single diseased cow doesn't scare most U.S. meat eaters; retailers say beef consumption hasn't suffered. Still, a late February poll by NPD Group Inc. found 22% of the 556 people surveyed were extremely or very concerned about mad-cow disease. In hopes of reassuring consumers, the USDA is close to announcing plans to test hundreds of thousands of cattle this year, compared with about 20,000 last year. But any expansion won't satisfy the consumers who want to know that the beef on their plate came from a tested cow. About 35 million cattle will be slaughtered this year.
What's more, a controversy over the detection of the first U.S. case of mad cow is fueling fears that the discovery was a fluke. The department's testing program focuses on injured and ill cattle, called "downers," because the inability to walk is one symptom of BSE. The USDA said the infected Holstein cow was discovered at a Washington state meatpacking plant because the federal veterinarian there tagged her as a downer.
But men who claim they saw the infected cow that day say she was ambulatory. If the men are correct, say consumer advocates, the government's testing theory could go out the window.
Phyllis K. Fong, the inspector general of the USDA, told Congress last week that her office is investigating whether official records about the infected cow were illegally altered.
Cattle contract the disease by eating the remains of infected cattle. That can happen because the rendering industry grinds dead livestock into protein ingredients for the feed industry. To keep the disease out of the cattle population, the U.S. government bans feed producers from using cattle remains in products meant for cattle, but critics worry that feed meant for another animal could wind up being fed to cattle.
Updated March 9, 2004
Test your own beef, and you're a criminal. You'd think that this is one of the few cases in which food advocates of a pinko persuasion and free-market conservatives on the other side of the aisle could join into a coalition to support meaningful USDA reform.