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Some beef plants want BSE testing

US resists calls for mad cow protocol

GRANITE CITY, Ill. -- John Tarpoff knows his demand is illogical.

There is no scientific reason for him to extract a sliver of brain from each steer he slaughters to test for mad cow disease.

He kills only young cattle at his processing plant: certified Angus, 12 to 20 months old. Animals that young don't get the disease -- at least, not at a detectable level. Testing every carcass is "highly unnecessary," Tarpoff said.

Still, he is desperate to do it.

But the federal government will not let him.

Tarpoff's best customer, a Japanese beef distributor, will import American cattle only if they have been tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a brain-wasting disease. That's the policy of the Japanese government, ever since a dairy cow infected with the disease was discovered last year in Washington state.

"If our government just permitted us to test, we could have that business back instantly," Tarpoff said.

Under a 1913 law, the US Department of Agriculture has sole authority to license "veterinary biologics," such as diagnostic tests. So far, the agency has licensed the mad cow test kits only to itself. They can be used only by USDA scientists or at seven USDA-approved labs. And they can be used only to improve the USDA's surveillance system, which monitors the nation's herd for BSE by testing less than 1 percent of cattle sent to slaughter.

"Let's say you're conducting your own testing, and you get a false positive. You yell out: 'Guess what? We have a positive!' Know what would happen? Everybody in the world would stop trading with the US," USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said.

"Or let's say you get a cow that tests positive, but instead of telling us, you go bury it out in the pasture. That's why we need to have one confirmatory agency in charge."

To which Tarpoff responds: fine. He would be happy to leave the government in charge. He would send his samples to a USDA lab. He would let the USDA monitor his packinghouse to make sure that no steer is sold, or disposed of, unless it tests clean. He would pay the estimated $15 to $30 per test, so taxpayers do not have to.

"We'll fit in with whatever protocol they want," he said.

But the USDA will not come up with a protocol -- not for using the mad cow test to guarantee the safety of specific meat products. "It's not a food safety test. It's a surveillance test," chief veterinary officer W. Ron DeHaven said this spring.

A fatal disorder that causes cattle to stagger and fall, BSE is caused by malformed proteins, known as prions, that eat holes in the brain. Humans can contract a form of BSE by eating infected meat. More than 150 people worldwide, most of them in Great Britain, have died from the human form of the illness, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob.

Britain tests all cattle older than 24 months. France and Germany test more than half their cows. Japan, which had a minor outbreak of BSE three years ago, tests every animal it slaughters.

But the USDA has resisted calls by consumer advocates to test more of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year. After the BSE case surfaced in Washington, the agency enacted other reforms instead, including banning from the food supply the organs, nerves, and tissues most likely to harbor prions. "Downer" cattle, too sick to walk, are no longer allowed to be processed for food.

Insisting that American beef is the safest in the world, many ranchers say the USDA has already done enough. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents 250,000 ranchers, strongly opposes universal testing.

Its producers worry that if one packinghouse, however small, begins marketing its beef as "BSE tested," consumers will infer that it is safer. Then pressure will build on all producers to test every animal.

That could cost the industry $1 billion a year, according to Gregg Doud, the group's chief economist.

Many ranchers also fear that letting a few small producers test their cattle will hurt beef exports overall.

Dozens of nations closed their markets to American beef after the USDA disclosed the mad cow case Dec. 23. Industry officials hope their most lucrative market, Japan, will relax its ban by fall. But they say Japan will have no incentive to import untested American beef if it can procure meat from smaller slaughterhouses that test every animal.

"I can understand their position," Tarpoff said. "But from a business standpoint, it hurts."

The cooperative he manages, Gateway Beef, was founded a year and a half ago by 59 cattle ranchers in Missouri and Illinois. Most were producing premium beef, raised without hormones or antibiotics. But it was harder and harder to make a profit.

With four huge processors controlling 80 percent of the US beef market, the independent farmers thought they had no leverage to negotiate decent prices. So they banded together to seek their own niche markets.

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