Mad cow effects ripple through food economy

US Agriculture Department moves toward more rigorous animal testing, while other nations keep bans on US beef.

It's been three months since the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. But even though that heifer from the Yakima Valley in Washington State appears to have been an anomaly, the shock wave from the episode continues to ripple across the country and abroad.

Import bans imposed by many other nations have cut deeply into the US beef industry. American consumers remain wary. The US Department of Agriculture is scrambling to restore confidence by changing the way it polices the raising and slaughter of cattle. Among the likely changes: A large increase in animal testing as well as the eventual tracking of beef cattle from birth to slaughter.

"The direct and indirect impact of BSE has not only assaulted the beef sector but the effects have been felt throughout the ag economy," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told a farm forum in Troy, Ohio, last Saturday.

BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is a brain-wasting disease believed to have been carried by animal feed made from cattle brains or spinal cord.

Such feed is now banned in the United States and other countries.

But that hasn't stopped BSE from appearing here and there around the world.

In the Czech Republic this week, 140 cows from cooperative farms were slaughtered, part of the planned slaughter and testing for BSE of 248 cows since a confirmed case of the animal disease was found in January. Also this week, a dead cow on the Japanese island of Hokkaido tested positive for BSE, the Agriculture Ministry reported. It was the 11th instance of BSE in Japan since the first case was discovered in 2001.

Because Mexico decided this month to resume limited imports of US beef, the USDA Wednesday raised its forecast for beef exports this year to 430 million pounds. But that's still far below 2003 sales, due largely to the fact that dozens of countries have imposed bans on US beef exports.

At a Senate hearing this week, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick urged Japan to follow Mexico' s lead. But Japan - which had been the largest importer of US beef - continues to demand that all US cattle scheduled for export be tested for BSE, as is the case with Japanese cattle.

Some 35 million cows are slaughtered in the US each year. Direct and indirect economic activity from the industry adds up to $188 billion annually, making it the largest portion of the nation's food and fiber industry.

Until recently, just 1 in 1,700 cows were tested in the United States - far fewer than in Europe or Japan. Shortly after the discovery of BSE in the US last December, the USDA announced that it would double the rate of testing - to about 40,000 cows a year. Critics said this was still far too low, and now the USDA is expected to raise that number considerably - perhaps to as many as 300,000 animals a year, according to some reports.

There's considerable pressure on the USDA to do so - not only from importing countries like Japan but from American farmers. Some producers want to pay for their own private tests so that they can market their beef here and abroad as BSE-free. But USDA officials say they won't allow such private testing.

One reason: It may leave the impression that nontested cattle are unsafe when the federal government is trying to remind consumers that the single case of BSE in this country was highly unusual and that there's no reason not to buy US beef.

One challenge is that the animals have to be killed in order to test for BSE. Researchers from Washington State University and the USDA are working on a test for live animals. But according to a 2003 report by the US National Research Council (NRC), "Major breakthroughs are needed to achieve the levels of sensitivity and specificity required to test live animal and human tissues."

This dispute over private versus government-run testing reveals what some observers feel is a conflict in USDA's major jobs: Promoting US agriculture while regulating its practices.

Meanwhile, consumer confidence in beef products remains mixed around the country. Most Americans continue to eat hamburgers and steaks.

But a Seattle family last week filed a class action suit against a grocery store chain for selling ground beef that may have come from (or been mixed with) an animal exposed to mad cow disease, which scientists say can lead to a fatal form of the disease in humans.

The single cow confirmed with the disease was discovered in Washington State. But meat from that cow was processed with other beef, then shipped to distributors in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Montana.

The USDA recently acknowledged that the amount of potentially contaminated beef was 38,000 pounds - nearly four times its first estimate.

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