Beef producer's bid to test all its cattle for BSE denied

WASHINGTON, DC, April 15, 2004 (ENS): Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC, a privately owned producer and processor, is threatening legal action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the agency's decision last week not to allow it to voluntarily test all of its cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known as mad cow disease.

Dryland grazing on the Great Plains in Colorado.
Photo courtesy ERS
Creekstone Farms asked the USDA in February to allow the company to conduct private testing for mad cow disease at its Arkansas City, Kansas processing plant. The company wants to regain entry into the Japanese beef market where its products were once prized for their high quality.

Since the discovery of one BSE infected cow in Washington state in December 2003, Japan and 57 other countries have banned U.S. beef imports.

Creekstone Farms has agreed to meet Japanese requirements by testing each and every one of the carcasses it would export to Japan for BSE.

But the USDA refused the license request from Creekstone Farms. "We are looking at what the consensus of international experts is when it comes to testing, and that consensus is that 100 percent testing is not justified," Agriculture Department spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said. "That's why we feel at this time we cannot grant Creekstone's requested timeline for a decision."

In a letter to USDA officials on Tuesday, Creekstone Farms CEO John Stewart and COO Bill Fielding said the company will challenge the USDA’s decision, and is currently analyzing its legal options.

"We are challenging USDA’s authority to control the sales of BSE diagnostic tests in the United States and your decision to prohibit companies like Creekstone Farms from conducting 100% testing of young animals that would meet our customers’ needs and requirements," wrote the beef company officials.

They said the USDA decision is costing Creekstone Farms a minimum of $200,000 a day in lost revenues, and put the agency on notice that the company will "continue to track this loss on a daily basis to determine damages."

Last year, the Sumitomo Corporation of America began to export high quality beef from Creekstone Farms in north central Kentucky to Japan. Sumitomo approached Creekstone due to its highly specialized breeding facility said Tetsuro Tajima, Sumitomo meat products manager.

Creekstone's quality control system is important for marketing to the Japanese consumer, particularly in light of recent health concerns with beef, including mad cow disease, Tajima said. "We are able to explain to our customers that the beef is safe and healthy, because every process is controlled through slaughter and fabrication."

But Creekstone has lost Sumitomo and other customers over the USDA’s plan to test only some 220,000 of the 35 million head of cattle slaughtered for meat each year in the United States.

On Monday, Japanese Vice Agriculture Minister Mamoru Ishihara said the U.S. government’s decision not to accept Creekstone’s offer is, "frankly speaking, regrettable.”

Yesterday, the 102 year old National Farmers Union took a position in support of Creekstone Farms, urging the USDA to allow U.S. beef processors to regain access to international beef markets by voluntarily testing cattle for the fatal brain wasting disease.

National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson said, “We find it troubling that the USDA has denied Creekstone Farms the opportunity to meet the wishes of an important customer and regain access to the Japanese market. This decision prevents excellent marketing opportunities for farmer owned beef cooperatives and other small processors of quality U.S. grown beef.”

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Frederickson wrote, “Without taking measures to satisfy the needs of our international beef customers, we cannot expect to regain the full value of our export market or reopen the foreign markets now closed to our products. While ‘sound science’ is often recited as rationale to not test all processed animals for BSE, we must recognize that international trade is not based purely on scientific standards.”

National Farmers Union is a general farm organization with a membership of nearly 250,000 farm and ranch families in all states. “It is our hope that USDA will do its part to reestablish international trade for U.S. cattle and beef products by reversing its Creekstone Farm decision and implementing mandatory country-of-origin food labeling,” Frederickson said.

Using the Rapid Test method for BSE, Creekstone Farms would to test more cattle than the USDA, at a lower cost, Stewart and Fielding wrote in their letter to USDA officials. "If our plan were to be implemented, we would test over 300,000 head of cattle over the course of a year, versus the USDA proposed cattle population of approximately 220,000 head."

"As well, the USDA is planning on spending a minimum of $72 million of taxpayer money to conduct these tests. The Creekstone Farms’ plan will cost less than $6 million using the identical test kit, and our customers are willing to pay for the cost of the testing," the company officials wrote.

The company asks on what legal grounds the USDA would prohibit a private industry from performing a Rapid Test method for BSE. If testing young cattle is not a food safety issue, does it fall under the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) or the Food and Drug Administration, the company asks.

It asks for the scientific basis for the decision to prohibit all specified risk materials, such as the brain and spinal cord, from animals of all ages if, as the USDA has stated, mad cow disease does not occur in cattle under 30 months of age. However, the company points out, "There have been young cattle (under 30 months) in Japan and England testing positive for BSE."

The company asks how the USDA can certify domestic and international sales/production of natural or organic beef products without testing all animals.

How can the USDA justify spending $72,000,000 in taxpayer funds to test 221,000 head of cattle in 12 months for $325/head, when a private company will use the same test method as APHIS to test 300,000 head for $5.4 million paid for by consumers in 12 months, at a cost of $18/head, Creekstone Farms asks.

Complete preparation and training to conduct the BSE testing took Creekstone Farms one month, the company wrote, asking why it would take APHIS five months to fully implement their program.

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Japan this week and has obtained an invitation for U.S. agriculture officials from the Japanese government to reopen consultations on the BSE issue. Cheney said he is hopeful that talks could lay the groundwork for a resolution to the dispute.

Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said USDA Undersecretary J.B. Penn will lead a delegation to Japan on April 22 and 23 to reopen talks.

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