18 April 2004

From Today's New York Times

The Bush administration generally frowns on federal regulation and touts the virtues of voluntary efforts to deal with all manner of national problems. So it was quite a shock when heavy-handed regulators at the Agriculture Department refused to let a private company test all the cattle it slaughters for mad cow disease.

The request to conduct tests was submitted by Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a small producer in Kansas, which wanted to resume selling its high-priced Black Angus beef in Japan, a major market. The Japanese have detected some 10 or so cases of mad cow disease in their own country, so they now test every animal slaughtered for food purposes there. They want American exporters to do the same.

Creekstone was willing to oblige even though it believes the American beef supply is already safe. (One cow in the state of Washington tested positive for the disease last December, but it was found to have originated in Canada.) The Japanese ban is costing the company some $200,000 a day and has forced it to lay off 45 workers. Creekstone planned to test all 300,000 animals slaughtered at its Kansas plant each year, using the same rapid diagnostic tests used in Japan.

In a country like the United States, where not a single indigenous case of mad cow disease has yet been detected in cattle of any age, such blanket testing is probably overkill. It would seem adequate for consumer safety purposes simply to test most of the nation's disabled cattle and a suitable sample of healthy cattle, as Agriculture officials plan to do. But it is hard to see how Creekstone's desire to do more would hurt anyone else.

The Agriculture Department gave a curt no when Creekstone, which was required under a 1913 law to get permission to conduct the tests, sent in its request. The stated reason for the rejection was that the rapid tests are licensed only for surveillance, not to guarantee consumer safety. But critics contend the department is primarily trying to protect the beef industry from pressure to test all 35 million or so cattle slaughtered in this country annually. Such blanket testing would raise production costs, and discovery of a single case of mad cow disease, or even a false positive, might cause American beef sales to plummet.

What is most worrying about this entire incident is not that Creekstone will not be able to do the tests, or even that the federal government appears to be discouraging a minor concession that would lead to both exports and jobs. If the cattle industry has the clout to sway a government department on this kind of issue, it probably has the clout to influence federal officials when it comes to questions much closer to the interests of American consumers.

American negotiators are pressing the Japanese to relax their requirements, and if they succeed Creekstone, at least, will have a happy ending. If they do not, the government should change its mind and let the market rule. That would be at least a small sign that the people who help protect the safety of American meat have their priorities in the right place.

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