Wichita A Kansas meatpacker said Thursday it planned to voluntarily test every animal processed at its Arkansas City plant for mad cow disease, a move that has sent shudders throughout the U.S. beef industry and government regulators.
John Stewart, chief executive officer of Creekstone Farms, said his company had assurances from its Asian customers they would accept his beef products if the company tested every carcass.
Japan has insisted on 100 percent testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, before they reopen their market to U.S. beef.
But the idea has been resisted by the Agriculture Department and the meatpacking industry as an unnecessary expense that does nothing to make beef safer.
J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services at the department, said the agency had received a request from Creekstone Farms to perform voluntary testing. The company also has asked to establish a laboratory for BSE testing at its plant.
Stewart said he was waiting to discuss the matter with Asian governments until the Agriculture Department's concerns were resolved.
If the department does not approve the testing within 60 days, Creekstone Farms will be forced to lay off between 10 and 15 percent of its work force at the Arkansas City slaughter plant, where it employs 750 workers, Stewart said.
Creekstone Farms exports about 25 percent of its beef products.
The company has been losing about $80,000 a day and has been forced to cut operations to four days at its Arkansas City plant, said Chuck Knapp, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.
Tiahrt has been working with the company to get USDA to allow testing.
Creekstone Farms is the first U.S. meatpacker to agree to 100 percent voluntary testing of slaughtered animals.
"We believe it is the right thing to do: to test every animal to give the American public and consumers a comfort level that every animal coming from our facility, all the meat coming from our facility, has been BSE-tested and is BSE-safe," Stewart said.
The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is the only agency now authorized to test for BSE in the United States.
The department announced last month it would accept applications for companies who wanted to do a rapid test for BSE, which returns results in 24 to 36 hours.
But department spokeswoman Julie Quick said that it could take as long as a year before those companies could begin testing. That's because facilities have to be inspected and the test kits, which are yet approved for using in the United States, have to be tested.
Kentucky-based Creekstone Farms kills about 1,000 cattle daily at its Arkansas City plant. It markets the beef under its Creekstone Farms Premium Black Angus Beef brand.
Stewart said his company could take a direction different from other meatpackers because it is a smaller processor that sells premium beef.
"We understand that our competitors are not particularly happy about this," Stewart said. "They do not want to BSE-test because of financial implications. Most of our competitors are commodity-driven. They have very, very thin margins and most likely they would not be able to recover the cost of this in their selling price."
Creekstone Farms said the testing would add about $20 to the cost of processing each animal, a cost that will be passed on to customers.
Other meatpackers were reluctant to even discuss the matter.
Wichita-based Excel Corp. referred questions to the American Meat Institute. AMI President J. Patrick Boyle issued a written statement noting that BSE testing always has been conducted exclusively by governments.
"While we understand that some companies may wish to engage in BSE testing as part of a marketing program, such an arrangement would be unprecedented," Boyle said.
AMI said testing all animals would not make beef safer.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said that "ideally" meatpacking plants should not have to cut their own deals to reopen U.S. export markets.
"We should have one standard and it should be negotiated at the federal level -- and that is what should work," Brownback said. "But in this situation, if this company is being aggressive in marketing and the Japanese are willing to open the market up to them, I am glad to see them pressing forward."