Natural Foods Merchandiser

Meatpacker sues USDA for right to test for mad cow disease

Food-safety laws in the United States have made one beef packer mad as, well, cows.

Last month, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, protesting the government's prohibition against voluntarily testing cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

John Stewart, chief executive of Creekstone Farms, said market research shows tested beef provides an additional level of comfort with the product, especially among Japanese consumers, much as an organic label does for a certain subset of American shoppers. "We want to test 100 percent," he said.

Japan has banned U.S. beef since January, when a shipment containing prohibited spinal material was discovered there. Adding to concerns about U.S. beef, the USDA last month discovered a cow in Alabama was infected with BSE—the nation's third. Prior to those events, Japan's market had been open to U.S. beef for only a month. The border was closed after the discovery of the first BSE-infected American cow in 2003. Until then, Japan was the largest export market for U.S. beef, buying $1.4 billion worth of it.

Creekstone is the largest producer of natural beef, Stewart said.

"Our customers support our brand for the many points of difference we provide," he said in a news release. "If BSE testing is an additional attribute that our customers want, free enterprise should allow us to provide this additional element."

Instead, the company said, USDA has "repeatedly denied" Creekstone's requests to access and use BSE test kits.

"The government is saying that from an obscure 1913 act, which was the Virus Serum Toxin Act—that act, they claim, gives them broad authority to control the sale of these kits. We strongly disagree with that and the basis of our challenge is that they do not have the authority to control the sale of the kits," Stewart said. "If we have the kits then we can test. This 1913 act was really designed to protect farmers against shysters, if you will, that were producing meaningless serums to fight hog cholera. It doesn't have a whole lot of relevance."

Stewart said USDA issued Creekstone a "canned response" to the suit, reiterating its position that the nation has a robust surveillance system that meets its goals.

"We are not pushing the government for blanket testing," Stewart said. "We've said our beef supply is safe; we still believe that. Our reasons for testing are simply that our customers want us to do it." European and American consumers are expressing increasing interest in BSE-tested beef, he said.

"We feel strongly about our right to test. We were very, very patient with USDA. We started discussions with them on this matter over two years ago … and their position really has not changed much," Stewart said. The cost of testing is about $20 per animal, he said.

Stewart said his conversations with others in the industry have been encouraging. "Whether or not they will join in the suit or whether or not we will even ask them to join the suit is not determined yet. There are a substantial number of companies in the beef business that will go public with support."

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