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Opposition to mad cow testing is anti-consumer

June 10, 2008

USDA Opposition to Mad Cow Testing Is Anti-Consumer, Anti-Competitive;
Tests Could Resolve Korea Beef Trade Dispute

Washington, DC—Consumers Union calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reverse itself and allow a Kansas based meatpacking company, Creekstone Farms, to test their slaughtered cows for mad cow disease. Last year, Creekstone won its suit against the agency for the right to test and label its meat as “tested for BSE”. USDA appealed the ruling, arguing the same rapid test kits used by the agency to screen for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow, are “worthless” when used by a private company. The U.S. Court of Appeals is expected to rule shortly.
“The best thing USDA could do would be to drop its anticompetitive, anti-consumer ban on voluntarily testing for mad cow disease and also allow meat from tested animals to be labeled as ‘tested for BSE’ so that consumers have a choice and free markets can function,” said Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union. “It is hurting our trade with other countries and consumer confidence in our beef supply at home,” added Hansen.
Currently, the USDA tests only a tenth of a percent of all slaughtered or dead American beef cattle, while Japan tests every cow put into the food system. This discrepancy led to a protracted trade dispute with Japan.
South Korea currently bans all U.S. beef, and tens of thousands of people demonstrated Tuesday against lifting import restrictions there. Creekstone Farms had built a lab to screen all their slaughtered beef using the same tests used by USDA, in order to compete in the overseas beef market. USDA prohibited the testing, calling it “worthless”.
The “rapid test” kits used by USDA to detect mad cow are not infallible, but according to Consumers Union are not “worthless,” as the agency argued in their appeal of the lower Court ruling. These tests can miss a case of mad cow disease if it is in an early stage of incubation, but they can catch the disease in later stages, before the animal is showing symptoms. In fact, the European Union uses the same test on healthy-appearing cattle and turned up over 1,100 cases of BSE between 2001 and 2006, preventing over a thousand infected cattle from reaching European supermarkets.
In late April, Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced that he had made a deal to open up the Korean market to U.S. beef, triggering massive street demonstrations. Candlelight vigils have been held daily for over a month, and major demonstrations have been held in Seoul against importing U.S. beef since last Friday.
“USDA should not wait for the Court’s decision, but rather should drop their appeal and allow the sale and use of USDA-validated rapid test kits for the detection of mad cow disease,” added Hansen, who has done extensive media in South Korea on U.S. beef testing and mad cow disease. “If U.S. companies were allowed to test for BSE, then these heavy export restrictions would probably decline or disappear. Indeed, the reason that Creekstone brought the case against USDA was to regain lost income from exports to South Korea and Japan,” said Hansen. “A reevaluation of our beef testing policy is essential to remain competitive in the world beef market and ensure the safety of consumers both home and abroad.”
For more information on USDA’s position on mad cow and developments in Creekstone’s court battle see http://blogs.consumerreports.org/safety/ .
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Jennifer Fuson (202) 462-6262
Michael Hansen (917) 774-3801
Jean Halloran (646) 932-9768