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Wednesday, March 3, 2004


Prove, donít proclaim, beef safety

Guess who doesnít want American beef growers to test for mad cow disease?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A beef producer in Kansas has proposed testing all of its cattle for mad cow disease so it can resume exports to Japan.

The company, Creekstone Farms of Arkansas City, Kansas, wants to test cattle with the same rapid diagnostic tests used in Japan and several European nations. The Japanese government has indicated that it may allow imports of beef tested with the same equipment used in that country.

The hitch? The USDA has never approved a rapid diagnostic test for mad cow disease. Even though there are American companies that manufacture the diagnostic tests the beef producer wants to use, the companies cannot legally sell the tests because they lack USDA approval.

So, the Kansas beef producer says itís losing $80,000 a day in lost exports. Japan banned imports of American beef after a cow in Washington state showed up in December with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

The USDA has thrown up a bureaucratic wall of silence in the matter.

At the same time, the American Meat Industry, a large industry organization, is proclaiming that American beef is so safe that testing beyond the spot tests now conducted on suspicious animals headed for slaughter is unnecessary.

The position flies in the face of experts who readily admit that they are not entirely certain how the disease is transmitted from cow to human. It begs the question raised by researchers who found that the disease affected not only individual mice infected in the laboratory, but showed up in subsequent generations.

The industry seems to view doing nothing as a preferable alternative to an ounce of prevention.

Instead of addressing questions about slaughtering techniques that may contribute to contamination of batches of burger with brain or spinal tissue, the industry is taking the position that itís no big deal.

So far, Americans seem to believe it. They seem to be reassured by the statistics that show that the chance of contracting mad cow disease today is miniscule. Domestic beef sales have not dropped significantly since the discovery of mad cow disease in the American herd.

Yet, without large-scale testing, Americans really have no way of knowing if we can chow down on a burger without having to worry about developing holes in our brains some day 10 years from now.

The USDA and beef processors need to stop proclaiming beef safety. Instead, they need to prove it.



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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.