While, collectively, the beef business chugs along despite BSE, the industry is fighting itself. Controversy over BSE testing erupted after Creekstone Farms submitted a request to USDA in February for the OK to conduct private BSE testing at its Arkansas City, KS, processing plant. Creekstone says it has assurances from Asian customers that such voluntary testing will reopen the markets for Creekstone products.

USDA refused the license request, saying 100% testing isn't justified. NCBA agrees. The use of 100% testing as a marketing tool is disrupting government-to-government discussions on restoring trade for U.S. beef and undermines consumer confidence, says Jan Lyons, Kansas cattle producer and NCBA president.

“Allowing private companies to use testing as a marketing tool will place undue costs on cattlemen without producing additional protections for consumers and our animal herds,” Lyons says.

Wythe Willey, chairman of Iowa Quality Beef Supply Cooperative (IQBSC), Tama, IA, warns that rapid tests are known to create false-positives.

“Our industry can't afford the ramifications of a false-positive finding,” Willey says. IQBSC doesn't favor testing cattle less than 30 months of age — the vast majority of cattle harvested in the U.S.

Dave Wood, beef division chairman for Harris Ranch Beef Co., Coalinga, CA, says if Creekstone is allowed to proceed with 100% testing, other markets could make similar unscientific demands.

Needle In A Haystack?

Creekstone Farms' CEO John Steward says the firm will challenge the USDA decision. Creekstone would test more than 300,000 head/year, vs. USDA's plan to test 220,000 head.

“USDA is planning on spending at least $72 million of taxpayer money to conduct these tests,” Steward says. “Our plan will cost less than $6 million using the identical test kit, and our customers are willing to pay for the cost of the testing.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Stanley Prusiner says the only way to assure beef is BSE-free is test all cattle at slaughter. He's the University of California-San Francisco neurologist who discovered prions — the malformed proteins believed responsible for BSE.

Only such testing will eliminate prions from the food supply and restore consumer confidence, Prusiner says. He says BSE hadn't been found in the U.S. because USDA tests too few animals.

“Once more cows are tested,” Prusiner says, “we'll be able to understand the magnitude of our problem.”

Some say Prusiner's credibility is tainted because he's an owner of a company that markets BSE testing kits.

“I greatly respect his work, but believe that such a disclaimer is appropriate and should be made in every discussion in which he's cited,” says Jared Taylor, Ames, IA. He's a veterinarian and adjunct instructor in the Center for Food Security and Public Health Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Taylor believes the revised BSE testing program recently proposed by USDA is a rational attempt to balance the need to establish a baseline of prevalence with the enormous demands of locating a proverbial “needle in a haystack.”