Congress eyes government response to mad cow disease

Monday, April 12, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Discovery of one case of mad cow disease prompted cries for immediate action on Capitol Hill, but three months later, Congress is watching on the sidelines while the Bush administration struggles to convince trading partners that U.S. beef is safe.

"Congress needs to be supportive of what the administration is doing -- provided the administration continues to consult with our producers and do this in a reasonable way," said Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

That is why Talent and 14 of his Senate colleagues urged Vice President Dick Cheney before his visit Friday to Japan to press the Asian nation to resume importing U.S. beef.

Most of the world banned U.S. beef imports after the discovery of the diseased cow, dealing a blow to an industry that makes up the biggest segment of American agriculture. Japan, the largest U.S. beef market, is demanding the United States test all 35 million cattle that are slaughtered each year.

"We're at a point now where we need to back the administration up; we need to let Japan know they're not going to split us from the administration on this," Talent said.

Mad cow is a brain-wasting disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. People who eat meat that contains the mad cow protein can contract a rare but fatal condition called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The ban on beef hit particularly hard in Missouri, where the business of farming and ranching is the No. 2 component of the state's economy. The U.S. cattle industry, with the exception of some small meatpackers, says it can't afford 100 percent testing.

Not only would it be costly, producers say, it would disrupt trade negotiations and could undermine consumer confidence with false-positive testing.

'Unreasonable requirement'"We know our beef is safe to eat," said Brent Bryant, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. "The science says that you do science-based testing based on at-risk animals. The Japanese have an unreasonable requirement of 100 percent testing, which is a political issue, not a scientific issue."

The Agriculture Department has a plan, beginning in June, to test at least 220,000 animals for BSE, a tenfold increase over last year. That's not enough for some.

"If all USDA does is this surveillance program they have planned, there will be animals that are BSE-positive that can get into the food supply," said Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the watchdog Government Accountability Project.

The Agriculture Department late Thursday refused the request of Kentucky-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef to test each and every animal at its Kansas slaughterhouse for mad cow disease. Creekstone said its customers in Japan promised to buy Creekstone beef again if the company tested for the brain-wasting disease in every animal processed at the plant.

"If a company like Creekstone wants to rapid-screen test for marketing purposes, Washington bureaucrats shouldn't get in their way," said Chuck Knapp, spokesman for Kansas GOP Rep. Todd Tiahrt.

That's not an opinion shared across the Kansas delegation.

"Our policies should be based on sound science and the current state of trade negotiations with our international buyers," said GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, a Senate Agriculture Committee member who praised the department's decision.

The small meatpacking company was at odds with powerful industry interests.

"It is very important that we continue to ensure there are no measures taken by companies that would be misleading to consumers through directly or indirectly implied safety standards," said Gary Webber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It (100 percent testing) is not necessary to ensure safety."

Consumer groups accuse USDA of neglecting consumer safety and say full testing is needed.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick maintain that international experts agree there is no scientific basis for 100 percent testing.

Talent and many other farm-state lawmakers agree.

"It's not necessary, because the process we have for testing animals works; that's why we found this cow," Talent said. As chairman of a Senate Agriculture Committee panel on marketing, Talent held a recent hearing on the issue.

Farm-state lawmakers and consumer groups disagree on testing, but they do agree on one point: Congress needs to closely monitor what happens.

"The department has the authority that it needs; as long as the department is able to move on its own and moves forward in the proper way, I think legislation would probably be counterproductive," Talent said. "What Congress does needs to do is play a strong oversight role."

Nestor said: "I'm happy to see as much congressional interest as we've seen, but they really need to stay very involved and alert. USDA will not do anything that it's not absolutely forced to do. We are going to have serious questions about how they do this surveillance."

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