USDA Should Back Off On Private Testing

The issue has become even less clear as U.S. negotiators continue to grant concessions to different markets in order to regain access for U.S. beef.

One issue arising from the discovery of BSE in the U.S. that I've had trouble reconciling is USDA's stance on private testing. The issue has become even less clear as U.S. negotiators continue to grant concessions to different markets in order to regain access for U.S. beef.

Creekstone Farms® Premium Beef, LLC, of Arkansas City, KS, petitioned USDA in spring 2004 to allow it to conduct its own BSE testing program, with USDA oversight.

Creekstone Farms produces Natural Black Angus Beef&#8482 and Premium Black Angus Beef&#8482, branded products it readily admits -- due to their price -- aren't products for everyone. The firm, which harvests 1,050 head/day, strives to add value to every piece of meat. It was the first U.S. beef processor to receive USDA's Process Verification for Tender Beef.

Creekstone's hope, though Japan officially has never backed it, was that its "product enhancement" of voluntary testing would allow it a chance to get back into the lucrative Japanese market. The Japan market made up a good chunk of Creekstone's business before BSE was discovered in the U.S. in late 2003.

At that time, Japan had in place a policy of testing all its domestic cattle at harvest. It's a step Japan's government was forced to take in its panic to salvage consumer confidence following its bungling of Japan's domestic BSE crisis, which hit in the fall of 2001 and has thus far churned up 26 cases.

Japan's government overplayed its hand, however, telling consumers BSE-tested beef was safe to eat, and non-tested beef was suspect. Of course, that flies in the face of all the science and internationally accepted standards.

USDA, however, turned down Creekstone's testing request, claiming only it has the legal authority to control access to, and use of, BSE testing kits. Voluntary testing, the agency contends, would undermine its official position, which is that U.S. beef is safe. In March 2006, Creekstone responded by filing a civil suit.

But why can't Creekstone's desire to test for BSE be interpreted as just free-market entrepreneurship -- simple product differentiation? If BSE testing is a feature Creekstone's customers want, free enterprise should allow it. How does this type of product differentiation differ from specified regimes for animal handling, portion control, tenderness, etc.?

About 20 years ago, the U.S. beef industry was in an uproar over what an upstart called Coleman Natural Beef was trying to do. Of course, Coleman was billing its beef as the product of "chemical-free cattle," which industry leaders thought would taint conventional cattle raised with the use of antibiotics and growth promotants.

By the way, Creekstone has never tried to draw such a food-safety distinction between tested and non-tested beef, publicly professing that all U.S. beef as safe.

As potentially injurious as some in the industry felt Coleman Natural's promotion program would be, its advent didn't destroy the conventional market. And, while that segment has since grown considerably, with every major packer now offering a "natural" line, it never will overtake conventional beef. What it has done, however, is attract folks who wouldn't otherwise be eating beef.

Of course, those opposed to private testing would say private companies shouldn't undermine U.S. trade positions. And though the U.S. has stood fast in its resolve that countries adhere to international standards for BSE, as set by the OIE, very few seem to actually do it.

In fact, of the countries that restarted beef trade with the U.S. since its suspension in 2003, just about all of them are doing so under a unique package of rules negotiated specifically to get that market reopened.

Further, 17 years after the European Union (EU) banned U.S. beef due to the use of growth promotants -- something all the science says is safe -- that ban is still in place. And it remains in place despite the fact the U.S. complaint succeeded before the World Trade Organization. Today, USDA even provides non-hormone certification for U.S. firms wishing to ship such beef to EU-approved plants. Creekstone is among them.

With all that's transpired on this trade issue, it really is high time USDA rethink its position on private testing and allow free enterprise and entrepreneurship to work.