The U.S. Department of Agriculture's refusal to allow a Kansas meat-packing plant to test every animal for mad cow disease raises an interesting free-enterprise issue.
Creekstone Farms had asked USDA for permission to test every animal it slaughtered in its Arkansas City, Kan., plant. The request was made because Creekstone's customers in Japan had promised to buy its beef again if the testing took place. Japan, the largest importer of U.S. beef, has banned U.S. beef since a case of mad cow disease was discovered in December in Washington.
Despite the company's willingness to privately test each animal, the USDA last week said no. Scientists say that testing each animal is excessive, and beef producers are concerned about the cost of such testing. The industry reportedly also fears the impact that false-positive tests could have on consumers and is concerned that Creekstone could gain an unfair advantage by setting a precedent for trade negotiations. "We want a level playing field for all companies based on science," said a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.
It seems unfair to Creekstone to prevent it from raising its standards to ensure a market for its product. If farmers can charge a premium price for organically fed beef, for instance, why shouldn't Creekstone be able to market beef that's met mad-cow screening requirements that are above the industry standard?
The concern that false positives could have a serious impact on overall beef markets has some validity, but false positives also can occur in limited testing. It's also possible that if Creekstone's testing showed that all of its cattle were free of mad cow disease, it might boost everyone's confidence in the overall safety of beef and especially Kansas beef.
Without the testing that will reopen their Japanese markets, Creekstone officials say, they may be forced to shut down the Arkansas City plant. With 780 workers, Creekstone once was the city's largest employer, but lost markets already have caused the company to lay off 45 workers. Company officials say they will cut a quarter of the remaining work force by next month unless markets turn around.
It seems like a valid business decision to try to produce a premium product for a special market. USDA wants to set one standard of safety to deal with mad cow disease, but if Creekstone wants to set a higher standard, it seems it should be allowed to do so.