Mad cow testing scaled back

Helen Palmer Jul 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Department of Agriculture’s not too worried about Mad Cow disease. So not worried, in fact, that it’s sharply cutting the number of cattle it tests. Helen Palmer has more from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH.

HELEN PALMER: After the first mad cow was discovered in the US in 2003, the Agriculture Department stepped up testing sharply. The department spent $1 million a week for two years and tested more than three-quarters of a million animals for mad cow.

RON DEHAVEN: The prevalence of the disease in the national herd is extremely low, certainly somewhere less that one positive out of a million adult cattle.

Ron DeHaven heads the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. He says they tested high-risk cattle, and the science proves that US beef is safe. But Mike Hansen of the Consumers Union says it’s not clear they tested the right cows.

MIKE HANSEN: Over 85 percent of them were animals that were simply dead, with no other information — those aren’t among the high-risk animals.

Hansen says high-risk cattle are older or sick, and the USDA has no reliable way to track or identify individual animals. He thinks this isn’t the time to relax testing because Japan’s currently deciding whether to reopen its market to US beef. Japan tests every single steer it sends to slaughter. But Gregg Dowd of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association says it’s fine to test less, as the export market’s recovering.

GREGG DOWD: Versus about $3.9 billion that we traditionally exported beef overseas, so we’re about at the halfway point on that looking at data so far this year.

The USDA’s Ron DeHaven says there’s another reason to scale. He says mass testing could end up costing the US consumer big bucks.

RON DEHAVEN: So that would be $1 billion in cost passed on to the consumer for testing that provides no food safety assurance and has no surveillance value.

DeHaven says the American with his steak sizzling on the grill is the most important customer of all, and he knows that beef is what’s for dinner.

In Boston, I’m Helent Palmer for Marketplace.

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