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Beef Industry Starts Girding for Another Mad Cow Scare

The USDA's release of an initial result amid a new test system draws concern -- and praise.

June 27, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The beef industry was bracing Saturday for the possibility of a new mad cow scare after the USDA's announcement that an examination of one cow had produced inconclusive results.

Industry officials are worried that a new, more sensitive USDA testing regime would result in a flood of similar announcements in the coming months, undermining consumer confidence shaken by a mad cow scare in December. One industry spokeswoman suggested that the USDA should await conclusive results, which take four to seven days, before making any announcement.

"While certainly everyone is interested in whether it's positive or negative, the bottom line is the beef supply is safe," said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the largest meatpackers' trade group, the American Meat Institute in Arlington, Va. "We're afraid the public is going to go through a roller-coaster ride every time you announce an inconclusive result."

But consumer advocates said they were glad the government announced the results because of the potential risk.

"It was right to bring the public in," said Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, a consumer advocacy group in Washington. "This is a huge public health issue and the public needs to be aware of what's being done."

The test result announced Friday was the first potentially positive finding since the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month instituted expanded national testing for the brain-wasting disease formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Those new procedures were implemented in response to the discovery in December of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. in a Washington state Holstein. That finding sent cattle markets plummeting, and led more than 50 countries to temporarily ban imports of U.S. beef.

In the wake of that episode, the USDA planned to vastly increase the number of slaughtered animals it tested for mad cow disease. The agency tested about 20,000 animals last year, and officials now plan to test about 220,000 animals over the next year to 18 months.

USDA officials defended their handling of the first inconclusive test results as erring on the side of caution. They noted they had released the news after beef markets had closed Friday, and that they were cautious to note that the results were preliminary. They did not say where the animal came from.

"We thought it was most important that folks hear from us rather than from a leak," said Julie Quick, an agency spokeswoman.

Consumer groups said the preliminary test result was an encouraging sign of improvement in the government's testing. But they contended that the government's efforts remained inadequate because, even now, 1% of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually would be tested.

Culp said the fact that an initial positive result turned up so quickly under the new program indicated that an even more aggressive testing program might be warranted.

"It underscores the need to test as many cows as is feasible," Culp said.

Michael Hansen, senior research associate for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said he hoped that if more-conclusive tests found the animal to be infected, it would prompt government agencies to institute even more-stringent testing and safety requirements.

In particular, he said he hoped that the Food and Drug Administration would issue regulations it announced months ago to close loopholes in rules meant to prevent the disease from spreading through infected feed.

"Hopefully, this should spur the government to take stronger actions," said Hansen. "Consumers don't have to completely panic, but there is a risk of unknown size here."

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Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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