USDA Blocks Responsible Food Safety Measures
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USDA Blocks Responsible Food Safety Measures

The U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t allow Creekstone Farms to prove the safety of its beef. It controls the sale of testing kits, and it ruled last week that only labs in the U.S. government’s testing program can buy them.

Paul Holmes

On Thursday of last week, Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington Beef Commission, was a guest of the Seattle chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, where she was scheduled to tell assembled PR professionals how the beef industry managed the crisis that erupted after the first case of mad cow disease in the United States was discovered at a Yakima-area dairy farm. According to a press release about the event, the beef industry “controlled mad cow mania.” According to the release, “Dire predictions about the industry’s future failed to materialize due in part to the rapid and reasoned response” of the Commission.

Presumably Bill Fielding was not in attendance. Fielding is the manager of Creekstone Farms, a small, upscale slaughterhouse and meatpacker that specializes in premium-quality Black Angus beef, tries to avoid animals that have been fed antibiotics or hormones, and can trace the origin of each animal it slaughters.

The company sells—or sold—much of its beef to Japan, where concerns about mad cow disease in the U.S. have been exacerbated rather than assuaged by the industry’s PR campaign. Japan refuses to buy U.S. beef until a more stringent safety process is in place. As a result, Creekstone’s sales have plummeted. Unless it can turn the situation around, Creekstone may soon be forced to declare bankruptcy, and almost 800 employees will lose their jobs.

In the wake of the mad cow crisis, Fielding made a trip to Japan and met with officials there. He came away convinced that Japan would lift its ban on American beef imports only if American companies bring their safety standards up to the level demanded in other developed countries. He decided that to meet the demands of his customers, Creekstone Farms would test every single cow it slaughtered.

To accomplish that objective, Creekstone has spent more than $500,000 to build the first mad cow testing lab in an American slaughterhouse, and it has hired seven chemists and biologists to operate it. There is only one problem: the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t allow Creekstone to prove the safety of its beef. It controls the sale of testing kits, and it ruled last week that only labs in the U.S. government’s testing program can buy them.

That position, said Fielding in media interviews last week, “flies in the face of the basic rule of business—that the customer is always right, and our job is to meet their demands.”

What’s worse is that the reason the USDA gives for refusing to sell the tests has nothing to do with medicine or science. It’s purely a political decision. The agency says it fears that by agreeing to the company’s request it could imply that there is a safety issue with American beef, and create demand for other producers to hold their cattle to the same stringent standards.

“I can very much empathize with the situation of the company, and I understand its perspective,” said Peter Fernandez, associate administrator of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “But our mandate is to stick to the science when it comes to putting together a surveillance system, and ours is to test a limited number of animals older than 30 months.”

The agency says it has followed the advice of an international panel of mad cow experts and put together an expanded plan to test as many as 250,000 animals over the next 18 months, which will determine whether mad cow disease is spreading through the American herd.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the premier trade organization for beef producers, continues to oppose efforts to ensure the safety of American beef. “If testing is allowed at Creekstone and other companies, we think it would become the international standard and the domestic standard, too,” says NCBA president Jan Lyone. “But it’s a standard that’s not based on science, would be very expensive and so is something our government definitely needs to resist.”

What’s particularly shameful about this is the attempt by the government and industry groups to cast their refusal to allow testing as an application of “sound science.”

“Sound science” is one of those phrases that ought to set off any functioning bullshit detector within a thousand mile radius. It’s typically employed by the Bush administration and by industry groups to mean any science with which they disagree. Those who continue to deny the existence of global warming, for example, claim that “sound science” has not yet established either its existence or the reasons behind it. The reality is that there is about as much controversy among climatologists about the existence of global warming as there is about the existence of gravity—but until there is absolute unanimity, the science won’t be sound enough for those who would have to change their behavior if we decided to address the problem.

But in this case, “sound science” is being used to obscure the fact that the disagreement isn’t about science at all. It’s about politics and money.

There is no scientific argument against increased testing. Increased testing can only provide more data, and there is no scientific circumstance in which more data is harmful.

Moreover, the idea that Creekstone’s safety initiative will “imply there is a safety issue with American beef” is utterly specious. What testing will do is show the presence or absence of mad cow disease in this specific herd. Testing doesn’t imply risk; it implies responsibility. More to the point, if the USDA is right when it insists that the American meat supply is safe, more testing will provide more evidence to support that contention.

If the tests find no trace of the disease in young cows, USDA will be vindicated (it can then stick out its tongue at Creekstone and the Japanese and say, “We told you so,” if that will make it feel any better); if the tests do find traces of the disease, the USDA will have valuable evidence that its current testing policy is faulty.

It’s not clear whether the meat industry lobby is fighting higher safety standards because of genuine concern over the costs—they have proved quite affordable for producers in Europe and Japan—or because larger companies like Tyson Foods, Swift & Co., and Smithfield Foods, who dominate the trade associations, see an opportunity to put smaller outfits like Creekstone out of business. The larger players also sell pork and chicken, which means they are better positioned to weather ban on beef exports.

Such suspicions are exacerbated by the fact that Creekstone believes it can test 300,000 head of cattle for about $18 a head. It believes it can bear the cost, and that its Japanese customers will be prepared to pay whatever cost is passed on to them for a guarantee of safety. “The Creekstone Farms’ plan will cost less than $6 million using the identical test kit, and our customers are willing to pay for it,” Creekstone wrote in its petition to the government.

The USDA’s upgraded surveillance program—which was resisted by the industry—will test around 221,000 animals at about $325 a head.

Meanwhile, Creekstone finds itself blocked from doing what good businesses do: striving to meet the demands of their customers; acting like a responsible citizen.

“They always talk about the need to follow good science, and I have no problem with that,” says Fielding. “But how would the science be hurt if we did more tests and helped them gather more information about mad cow disease?”

The company is getting some support from the political realm, but it may be too little too late.

“USDA made a decision based on old-school bureaucratic thinking that may well end up with us losing millions of customers and hundreds of American jobs,” says Todd Tiahrt, a Republican congressman from Kansas. “They’re afraid of change and new technologies, and that’s just not acceptable.”

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