Eat Me

The only thing keeping the Japanese from buying the Midwest's finest beef is the USDA

"At this moment we have detected eleven cases of BSE in Japan. Two of them were [in cattle] under 30 months of age," says Japanese agricultural attaché Sato Tadashi. "Japan appreciates these companies trying to meet the Japanese customers' requests, but some involvement of the U.S. government is necessary."

Gateway's request to the USDA came a month before the department launched an expanded BSE surveillance program. Whereas in previous years the agency tested about 20,000 cattle for the disease, as of June 1 it intends to test upward of 200,000 head in the next twelve to eighteen months. The government program targets animals older than 30 months, as well as downer cattle and any animals that display signs of neurological disorder. The agency estimates this so-called high-risk population at roughly 450,000 head.

"Assuming all the BSE-positive cattle are part of the high-risk population, if a total of 201,000 samples is collected, this level of sampling would allow us to detect BSE at the rate of 1 positive in 10 million adult cattle at a 95 percent confidence level," reads the plan. "Only older animals are an appropriate population for BSE surveillance testing."

Jennifer Silverberg
Quartered sides of Angus beef -- much of it USDA 
prime -- won't be making the trip to Japan.
Jennifer Silverberg
Quartered sides of Angus beef -- much of it USDA prime -- won't be making the trip to Japan.

But with a U.S. cattle population that likely exceeds 96 million, critics say, the USDA's testing regime won't yield the data the department is looking for. "By way of analogy: Drivers of red sports cars may be at greater risk of incurring or causing injury than drivers of other cars," posits Public Citizen's Lurie. "But most injuries do not involve red-sports-car drivers."

In other words, while Lurie concedes that the high-risk population will almost assuredly show a higher ratio of mad cow, he maintains that the majority of infected cattle will be found outside that group. "[The USDA's] sample size is based on the assumption that literally every infection that would exist in the U.S. would be among the downer cattle, and that's false," Lurie says. "It's just wrong, and they know it."

Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the USDA, disagrees. "Look: This is the population," Loyd contends. "If there are additional BSE cases in this country, this is the population in which we will find it. That is based upon all the scientific knowledge we have about the disease."

And given that the current tests are only able to detect BSE in its later stages, Loyd is probably right. Younger cattle may be carrying the disease, but the current crude testing methods won't be able to detect it. But by the same token, the state of the art is rapidly improving. Moreover, why should the USDA prohibit a company like Gateway from using the best available technology to satisfy a customer?

"The truth of the matter is, the more animals you test, the more likely you are to find a problem, but that's no reason not to test," offers former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "My own judgment is that the department should have allowed it -- there's nothing wrong with allowing these companies to do 100 percent testing if they want to."

State senator Michael Machado has introduced a bill in the California legislature that would allow that state's Department of Food and Agriculture to certify tests performed by individual slaughterhouses. "Individual slaughterhouses and producers don't have the wherewithal to challenge those rules and regulations," says Jody Fuji, a spokeswoman for the Democrat, whose district is about a hundred miles east of San Francisco. "This bill would force the USDA to engage in discussions with the State of California."

Closer to home, Missouri state representative Wes Shoemyer hasn't proposed any new legislation, but he supports Gateway's bid. "To stand in the way of these small businesses in this fashion -- it's really not the American way," says Shoemyer, a Democrat whose district is in the northeast part of the state. "It's absolutely wrong -- there's no other way around it."

The USDA maintains that the main reason it has declined meatpackers' requests for voluntary BSE testing is that the current BSE testing regime is not a food-safety program. It's a surveillance program, they say, aimed at identifying the extent to which BSE exists in the native cattle population. "We are being careful not to establish having those regulations used for marketing reasons," Loyd emphasizes.

But the USDA's decision is also informed by the very real question of public perception. A false positive, or so-called suspect test result, could cause panic about the safety of the entire U.S. beef supply, throwing domestic and international beef markets into turmoil. And then there's the more humdrum problem that the American public, seeing some tested meat, would assume all untested meat was unsafe.

"It implies a consumer-safety issue," says Loyd. "Essentially what you're saying is that this beef has been tested, and it's therefore safer than beef that hasn't been tested. What we're saying is that there's no scientific validity to a statement like that."

There's also the bigger world-trade picture, argues Texas A&M's Ernie Davis. Ever since the ban on U.S. beef went into effect, Japan has had to content itself with grass-fed Australian beef, which many Japanese view as inferior. In Davis' view, the U.S. should wait it out. "If we let Gateway [test its cattle], the Japanese will take their beef and not the rest," says Davis. "We don't need to restrict that market, and that's basically what we would be doing [if Gateway were allowed to test its product]."

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