WASHINGTON, April 21 (UPI) -- A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to block a private company from testing all its cattle under 30 months of age for mad cow disease runs contrary to its own records that show it has tested more than 2,000 animals in that age range, United Press International has learned.
The USDA rejected the Creekstone Farms testing plan on the grounds it was scientifically unsound. The Arkansas City, Kan., Black Angus beef producer wanted to test all its cattle for mad cow disease voluntarily so it could export its beef to Japan.
The Asian nation has insisted U.S. firms test all their cattle for mad cow before it will reopen its borders, which were shut to U.S. beef following the detection of a Holstein infected with the disease in Washington state last December.
In announcing the decision to reject Creekstone's proposal, Bill Hawks, USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said, "There is no scientific justification for 100 percent testing because the disease does not appear in younger animals" under the age of 30 months.
A more sound approach scientifically, Hawks said, would be USDA's expanded surveillance plan, which calls for testing 200,000 or more cows in U.S. herds that are 30 months of age or older.
The department's mad cow testing records, however, which were obtained by UPI via the Freedom of Information Act, show over the past two years the agency tested 2,051 animals -- and possibly more -- that were under the age of 30 months.
"That's so hypocritical," said Michael Hansen, senior research associate with Consumers Union, the advocacy group in Yonkers, N.Y. "It makes it difficult for the USDA to argue to Creekstone, 'We only test animals above 30 months,' when USDA itself tests animals as young as 3 months old."
In 2002, the agency tested 999 animals under 30 months old, including one as young as 3 months. The bulk, 841, were 24 months old, but 40 were 20 months, 31 were 18 months, 52 were 12 months and there were single cases of cows as young as 9, 8, 6 and 3 months old.
In addition, in 2002, of the approximately 20,000 cows tested, 111 animals have no age listed at all and more than 11,000 are classified only as adults with no specific age given.
The testing of young cows appears to have increased in 2003. USDA only supplied UPI with records through July of last year, which leaves out the final two months of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. During that 10-month period, however, the agency tested 1,052 animals under 30 months old. If this rate was maintained for the final two months of the year, the USDA would have tested about 200 more animals under 30 months in 2003 than it did in 2002.
The 2003 records also show more than 100 cows with no age listed and as many as 7,000 listed only as adults with no specific age.
Consumers Union, along with 12 other advocacy groups -- including Public Citizen and the Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease Foundation -- sent USDA a letter Monday urging it to reverse its position on the Creekstone proposal, as well as to expand its surveillance program to include animals under 30 months old.
Hansen said he would like to see the testing program amended to include animals as young as 20 months because infected animals of that age have been detected in Japan and two animals under the age of 30 months have tested positive for mad cow in Europe.
The concern with mad cow disease is it can produce a fatal, incurable brain disorder in humans called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, which is contracted from eating meat infected with the mad-cow pathogen.
"It's amazing that USDA lives by a double standard," said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group in Washington.
The USDA "offered a puny compromise to test older cattle for Creekstone farms when the agency itself has been testing some younger cattle for the last 2 years," Bohlen told UPI. His organization co-signed the letter to USDA and plans a demonstration Wednesday at the agency's headquarters in Washington.
Bohlen was referring to a compromise the agency offered Creekstone to test an unspecified number of its animals older than 30 months at USDA-approved labs. Creekstone rejected the deal because it has invested $500,000 in building a state-of-the-art testing facility and nearly all of its animals are under that age at the time of slaughter.
Bill Fielding, Creekstone's chief operating officer, said he would not classify USDA's offer as a compromise because it did not address the issues of concern to the company.
"As the USDA is aware, only about 1 percent of our animals are over 30 months, so testing them does nothing for our business and is not what our customers are asking for," Fielding told UPI.
He added that he agreed there was a double standard in the USDA's position that Creekstone cannot test younger animals when the agency has done so itself.
"There's so many inconsistencies with what they're saying," Fielding said. "I think that's why there's such a public outcry to what they're doing. We were getting hundreds of e-mails and letters, it's now up to thousands ... from people who can't believe what the government is doing."
USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison told UPI the agency's rationale for prohibiting Creekstone from testing younger animals is "the scientific evidence is there that you can't find it (mad cow disease) in animals under 30 months."
Asked why the agency tested thousands of animals under that age, Harrison replied, "I don't know."
It could be the animals were showing severe signs of central nervous system disorders -- a possible indication of mad cow disease -- or perhaps there was some "confusion on the age of the animals," she said. "I'm sure there's a good reason."
Harrison said she would look into the agency's rationale for testing the young animals and including them in official statistics, but she did not respond by presstime.
Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, a non-profit association in Billings, Mont., which represents independent ranchers, noted a 3-month-old cow looks like a calf, so it is unlikely animals in this age range were confused for 30-month old adults.
In addition, USDA records indicate the majority of animals younger than 30 months were classified as downers -- animals unable to walk -- which can happen for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with central nervous system disorders, such as a broken leg or a birthing injury. Only 57 out of the 1,052 young animals tested in 2003, for example, were classified as having signs of a central nervous system disorder.
"To test that many young animals does not appear to reflect an agency that is actually after the high-risk population," Bullard told UPI.
R-CALF has written a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman urging the decision on Creekstone be reversed and also has appealed to several members of Congress on the issue.
"The USDA is just plain wrong in deciding against Creekstone," Bullard said. "I think their argument is extremely weak and unfortunately it is damaging the industry."
Bullard and Fielding said they know of other companies that would like to emulate Creekstone's plan and test all their cattle as a way of tapping into the export market. Creekstone plans to appeal USDA's decision, and the other companies may come forward as the debate continues, they said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org