Creekstone Farms, a Kansas beef producer, wants to reassure customers that its cattle are safe to eat by testing them all for mad cow disease. Sounds like a smart business move, but there’s one problem: The federal government won’t let the company do it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture – invoking an obscure 1913 law intended to thwart con artists from peddling bogus hog cholera serum to pig farmers – is blocking companies from selling the testing kits to Creekstone.
USDA is doing the bidding of large cattle barons afraid that Creekstone’s marketing will force them to do the same tests to stay competitive. It’s true that the incidence of mad cow disease is quite low. But there’s little logic in stopping a company from exceeding regulations to meet the demands of its customers, or protecting its rivals from legitimate competition.
Not only is USDA blocking Creekstone, the department said last month that it’s reducing its mad cow testing program by 90%. The industry and its sympathetic regulators seem to believe that the problem isn’t mad cow disease. It’s tests that find mad cow.
The department tests only 1% of the roughly 100,000 cattle slaughtered daily. The new plan will test only 110 cows a day.
By cutting back on testing, USDA will save about $35 million a year. That’s a pittance compared with the devastation the cattle industry could face if just one human case of mad cow disease is linked to domestic beef.
The brain-wasting disease – known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE – is extremely rare but extremely deadly. Since 1986, it has killed more than 150 people worldwide, mostly in Britain, who ate infected meat.
Scientists don’t know the exact cause of BSE but think it’s spread when cows are fed ground-up parts of cattle and other cud-chewing animals. The government has tightened cattle-feed rules, but loopholes still permit cattle blood as a milk substitute and chicken waste as a protein supplement.
Canada has found four cows with BSE this year, and at least one was born after similar cattle feed rules were imposed that should have prevented the animal from being infected. Acting out of an abundance of caution, U.S. plans to increase Canadian beef and cattle imports have been put on hold until the new cases are investigated. That makes sense, but it’s hard to justify cutbacks on U.S. testing at the same time we demand other nations provide greater assurances.
Sixty-five nations have full or partial restrictions on importing U.S. beef products because of fears that the testing isn’t rigorous enough. As a result, U.S. beef product exports declined from $3.8 billion in 2003, before the first mad cow was detected in the USA, to $1.4 billion last year. Foreign buyers are demanding that USDA do more.
“In a nation dedicated to free market competition,” says John Stewart, CEO of Creekstone, which is suing USDA, “a company that wants to do more than is required to ensure the quality of its product and to satisfy customer demand should be allowed to do so.”
When regulators disagree with reasoning like that, you know the game is rigged.