WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- A number of small beef packing companies and independent ranchers want to move ahead with a radical plan of testing all or nearly all of their cattle for mad cow disease, but so far the U.S. Department of Agriculture is blocking those efforts.
The beef packing companies and ranchers argue the increased testing is a way to restore consumer confidence and enable their products to be exported to Japan and other countries that shut their borders to U.S. beef in December after the detection of a mad cow-infected animal in Washington state.
The concern is humans can contract a deadly brain disorder, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating meat tainted with the mad cow pathogen.
The companies and ranchers are quick to say, however, they do not believe mad cow disease -- otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE -- is present in U.S. herds. Their desire to increase testing is solely aimed at providing reassurance to their foreign trading partners and consumers.
Nevertheless, the USDA has not responded to their proposals for increased BSE-testing and at least one company --Creekstone Farms of Arkansas City, Kan. -- has taken to enlisting the support of members of Congress and senators in an effort to put pressure on the agency to act.
R-CALF USA, a non-profit association based in Billings, Mont., that represents independent ranchers, said it is supportive of Creekstone's efforts and noted its members favor a similar strategy -- involving testing all cattle over the age of 24 months -- as a means of assuring the public and foreign trading partners that U.S. herds are free of mad cow disease.
Creekstone Farms, a producer of Black Angus beef, approached the USDA several weeks ago with their proposal of testing 100 percent of their cattle to obtain advice from the agency on how they should proceed.
So far, "We have not got a response back yet," Kevin Pentz, vice president of operations at the company, told UPI.
The USDA released a statement on Thursday from J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, acknowledging the agency had been contacted by Creekstone, but acknowledging it had not yet responded.
"We are evaluating the several implications of the proposal, including the legal, regulatory, trade and other considerations," Penn said. "We intend to provide Creekstone a response when we have completed this evaluation."
Penn said although resuming trade with Japan is a top priority, the agency "must treat this matter very responsibly."
The USDA previously had indicated it would not permit importation of the type of tests Creekstone plans to employ because such test procedures are not approved in the United States.
Creekstone wants to use so-called rapid tests that are in use in Europe and Japan. Although the USDA has evaluated some brands of rapid tests, it has not yet approved any of them. There are at least four manufacturers of the rapid tests, but all are located outside the United States, so it would be difficult and perhaps illegal for Creekstone to obtain the tests without USDA approval.
The agency resisted calls by advocacy groups to incorporate rapid tests prior to the discovery of the mad cow in Washington, but USDA now is moving toward the use of such tests and recently invited applications from manufacturers.
More than 40 nations currently have imposed embargoes on U.S. beef imports and the industry stands to lose billions of dollars if it is unable to resume beef shipments. The larger beef companies may be able to withstand the financial impact, but Pentz said smaller companies such as Creekstone cannot afford the loss.
Japan, the largest U.S. beef importer, tests all of its domestically-produced cows and has insisted the United States adopt a similar requirement before it will reopen its borders.
Keith Collins, USDA's chief economist, told the Senate Appropriations committee on Tuesday his agency considers Japan's demands "unreasonable."
Bill Bullard, R-CALF's chief executive officer, said that kind of response from the USDA does not help the beef industry and actually may be financially damaging.
"Every industry knows that if you're not responsive to your customer's needs and demands, you will not be successful," he said.
"It's almost like there is a trade barrier being proposed by our own government," Pentz said, adding that Creekstone is not alone in its quest to test all its beef.
"We believe there's other companies that are very similar to our size that have also been looking at the same scenario of doing 100 percent testing," Pentz said. "But unfortunately their hands are tied by the USDA."
He noted his company is not seeking an economic advantage. Rather, it merely wants the ability to export its products so it can recoup lost revenue and restore some of the jobs that had to be cut due to the drop-off in beef sales.
Frustrated by the lack of response from the USDA, Creekstone is now working with two Kansas representatives in Congress -- Rep. Todd Tiahrt and Sen. Pat Roberts, both Republicans -- in an effort to get the agency to allow them to test their cows.
Bullard said his organization might follow a similar approach and turn to Congress for help. "It's unfortunate the USDA has resisted efforts to comply with Japan's requests," he said. "We need to continue working with Congress to encourage USDA to be more responsive to our trading partners requests ... and also to do far more to safeguard us from the introduction of BSE."
He noted the USDA's position on testing is consistent with those of the larger beef-packing companies and this could be due to the influence they have in determining policies at the agency.
"It has certainly been true and continues to be true today that they have significant influence over policy directions of USDA, and that has been a true disappointment from the independent cattle producers' perspective," Bullard said.
USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick denied that accusation.
"Our policies are based on what the science tells us," she told UPI.
R-CALF is in the midst of adopting a policy on BSE testing, but currently the organization is "tentatively supporting a policy of testing all animals over 24 months of age," Bullard said.
The aim would be to test all cows in that age range for one or two years to determine the prevalence of mad cow disease in the United States. This would help assure consumers and trading partners U.S. herds are BSE-free, which in turn could help restore live cattle prices, which have declined 20-25 percent since the announcement of the mad cow in December, Bullard said.
If no disease is detected after a year or two of testing, then there will be a better assurance the United States remains BSE-free and screening can be scaled back to only the higher-risk animals, he said.
As Creekstone waits for response from the USDA, it is moving ahead with negotiations with laboratories that could conduct the rapid tests on its cows.
The company also is getting protocols approved by Japan, South Korea and Mexico -- the three largest importers of U.S. beef. Clients in those countries have informed the company if it tests 100 percent of its animals then they can work with government officials and get the product imported, Pentz said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com