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Packers Mad That USDA Limits Testing
Diane Carman
Denver Post
April 25, 2004

While you've been too busy counting carbs to pay attention, a funny thing has been happening to your tenderloins on the way to the plate. The same folks who promised to protect you from meat contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy - mad cow - have, well, changed their minds.

Last Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly - some might say surreptitiously - lifted the ban on Canadian beef products that was imposed after three cases of mad cow disease were reported there and after an infected cow from Canada turned up in Washington state last winter.

This action came about a week after the USDA (Our mission: to maximize the profits of our beloved campaign contributors in the corporate beef industry) ruled that a small Kansas meatpacker, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, must not be allowed to test every head of cattle for BSE at its own expense.

To heck with free enterprise, this was serious business for the USDA. After all, if Creekstone is allowed to test all its cattle, some just might come up positive.

Yes, the agency charged with protecting the safety of our food supply has decided that there's such a thing as too much information for consumers.

Through its decision, the USDA ensures that no more than 120,000, or about 0.3 percent, of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the U.S. are tested.

We now have a maximum safety standard - currently set at 0.3 percent guaranteed mad-cow free.

"It's outrageous," said Kathleen Kelley, a rancher from Meeker and vice president of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

Ranchers who have adhered to strict protocols to protect their livestock and have seen the international market for their products evaporate anyway are furious with the USDA.

"We're frustrated, we're angry and at this point we feel the future of the U.S. cattle industry rests upon making sure - not saying - but making sure our food supply is safe," she said. "But the USDA is not in an action mode."

R-CALF and Creekstone are expected to file lawsuits to stop imports of Canadian beef and to overturn the USDA's testing limits.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy when people in an industry are suing a federal agency seeking more regulation of their products, but it's come to this.

"There is a war brewing right now in cattle country," Kelley said.

Simply put, it's the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents the multibillion-dollar meatpacking industry and has larded the administrative staff of the USDA with its lobbyists, versus R-CALF, a group of 9,000 small, independent cattle producers who refuse to kowtow to anybody.

"The packing industry, they want everything their way," said John Stencel, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, an ally of R-CALF. "They want the borders open to Canada again. They don't want to label products for country of origin. They don't want testing."

He said there are dozens of small producers here in Colorado who would join Creekstone in testing all of their animals so they can sell beef abroad again, Stencel said, but the USDA won't budge.

Why?

"The test is now licensed for animal health surveillance purposes," said USDA undersecretary Bill Hawks. "The use of the test as proposed by Creekstone would have implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted."

Say what? With only 0.3 percent of the U.S. herd tested for mad cow, how can we possibly know what is scientifically warranted? We have insufficient data to conclude that.

And if the only way Creekstone can sell beef to the Japanese is by spending $10-$20 per animal testing for mad cow and passing along the cost to the consumer, who cares?

If all the tests come up negative month after month, Japan and the 56 other nations of the world that won't buy U.S. beef now will have a better reason than just threats from U.S. trade officials to reopen the markets.

Despite the USDA's announcement last week that it will not reconsider its decision, Creekstone has not given up. It retained former USDA secretary Dan Glickman's law firm to challenge the ruling.

And on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard F. Cebull in Billings, Mont., heard R-CALF's attorneys make the case for a temporary restraining order to halt the shipment of Canadian beef into the U.S. market.

"We know there's a serious problem in Canada ," Kelley said. "Three cases of BSE originated there in less than a year in a testing program of only 4,000 animals out of a 15 million cow herd."

The USDA says the risk of allowing Canadian mad-cow infected beef into the market is acceptable, she said, "but to the person who comes down with a deadly, incurable disease, it's intolerable."

Put it that way and a whole lot of us side with the Japanese on this one. Sure, the mad-cow test will make the price of our burgers increase a nickel or so.

We're worth it.

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