The “sound science” mantra of US food regulators, politicians and industry and producer leaders – repeated especially in disputes with Europe and Japan on issues from beef hormones to biotech crops – faces a serious challenge in the scramble to reassure consumers and reopen export markets closed to American beef after the first US discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. James C. Webster reports from Washington.

US Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman’s first big step – to ban all non-ambulatory “downer” cattle from the food chain – no doubt helped prevent the kind of consumer aversion to beef that followed BSE outbreaks in the EU. However, it fails the “sound science” test. Not only congressional sceptics but also policy analysts see the ban as a concession to consumer perception rather than a step to guarantee food safety. They point out that such a sweeping rule covers animals too young to have the disease and otherwise healthy cattle with no more than a pulled muscle.

But the US Department of Agriculture has an opportunity to modify the ban, Veneman pointed out, during a formal rulemaking process that continues for several weeks, as it writes precise definitions for the kind of animals it will exclude from entering USDA-inspected slaughtering plants.

Fears that ban could weaken surveillance programme

Many members of Congress, including the Republican chairman and senior Democrat on the House of Representatives’ agriculture committee, fear that banning animals unable to walk or stand on their own would weaken the surveillance programme that allowed the USDA to discover the first BSE case – a non-ambulatory, six-year-old dairy cow in Washington State.

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USDA has promised, without providing details, to enhance its surveillance efforts to detect BSE, doubling the number of cattle tested to about 40,000 per year. It may consider sending its inspectors to rendering facilities for dead and “downer” livestock or requiring testing of animals dead or diseased on farms and ranches.

The government will also accelerate the development of a livestock tracking system, a step with scientific support that would move the US closer to the practices adopted in Europe and its principal meat trading partners, Japan and Canada. Many final details and the timetable of the trace-back, which has been developed by an industry-government task force over the past 18 months, must also be decided.

One of the big questions is who will pay; Veneman says President George Bush would ask Congress for some money for the scheme in his fiscal 2005 budget request in February. It would likely finance the centralised computer system to record and store livestock identification numbers.

“Abundance of caution”

Although Veneman and her aides frequently described several actions announced 30 December as taken out of an “abundance of caution,” she stopped short of suggesting any movement toward a “precautionary principle” that is advocated by EU governments and many US food safety activists. She expressed confidence that US “safeguards and firewalls” were adequate; the additional steps would “further strengthen our protection systems.”

Her “additional actions” did bend ever so slightly in the direction that consumer activists had advocated and away from the historical positions of the meat industry and the politically influential dairy and cattle producer lobbies.

Although some extreme consumer advocates urged testing of all 36 million cattle slaughtered in the US each year, the government is almost certain to reject that as unnecessary and too costly. Consumerists have also sought to ban ruminant material from all animal feed; that step has been under consideration and may have a good chance of adoption by the Food and Drug Administration.

USDA also expanded the definition of “specified risk materials” – those parts of cattle such as the skull, brain, eyes, spinal cord and some intestines – that are precluded from food or feed; severely limited the use of “advanced meat recovery” systems to remove meat from bones, and prohibited some devices that kill cattle at slaughter if they risk spreading the material most likely to carry the BSE agent.

Consumers unconcerned, but importers a different story

The government’s response through the first month after the 23 December BSE disclosure appeared to have convinced US consumers – retail sales data show no decline and, in some cases, beef sales up from a year before – but its vigorous efforts had not yet persuaded the major importers of US beef to remove their prohibitions. US beef exports totalled about US$3.5bn last year.

While prospects appeared stronger for resumption of trade with Mexico, the second-largest foreign buyer of US beef, there is less optimism in Washington that Japan, the largest importer, will soon agree to take US beef. US trade experts believe that Japan is more willing to base its trade policies on public sentiment than on internationally accepted risk assessment principles; they note also that the US has not removed the ban on imports of Japanese beef that Washington imposed after BSE was discovered in Japan.

A transformed political climate

Fallout from the BSE discovery has transformed the political climate for US policymakers. Before the disclosure, dairy and cattle lobbies had repeatedly defeated attempts in Congress that would have banned all downers. They successfully resisted legislation to require a mandatory animal identification system – even including in a “country of origin” labelling bill a ban on USDA requiring a trace-back system. The nation’s largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, this month tempered its policies to urge a ban on diseased or “neurologically impaired” animals from the food supply while allowing stock made non-ambulatory because of a bad leg or “shipping type injuries.”

Livestock and dairy groups are now more willing to accept a uniform animal identification scheme; legislation to require it is now before Congress. Divisions remain over whether it should be compulsory and how widely the information will be disclosed.

One change has widespread support and relatively little controversy – inauguration of new faster tests for BSE. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has begun looking at the claims of many companies to have developed rapid testing procedures with an eye to approving those it verifies as accurate. Some such tests have been used in Europe and Japan, but USDA scientists are not satisfied with their accuracy. Currently the only BSE test approved for use in the US is immunohistochemistry, the test USDA used to confirm the December incident. That test takes about two weeks for confirmation.

By James C. Webster, editor, The Webster Agricultural Letter; former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs, US Department of Agriculture