A federal judge's ruling last week would allow the nation's meatpackers to perform tests that many Americans probably would applaud.
Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a meatpacker based in Arkansas City, took its case to the federal courts after the U.S. Department of Agriculture barred it from testing all of the cattle it slaughters for mad cow disease. Creekstone was willing to do the testing to allay fears of the disease that can be fatal to humans who eat the tainted beef. The threat of mad cow disease was central, for instance, to Japan's decision in 2003 to ban all beef imports from the United States.
Although universal testing might alleviate importers' concerns, large meatpacking companies don't want to bear the costs of such a program. Instead, they favor the USDA's approach of testing fewer than 1 percent of slaughtered cows. Creekstone, however, was willing to wager that, at least in the Japanese market, people would be willing to pay a higher price for beef that had been screened for mad cow disease.
And that should be their right. Although Japan reopened its markets to U.S. beef in July 2006, another mad cow discovery could easily reverse that decision. If consumers are willing to pay a premium price for beef they know is free of mad cow disease, Creekstone should be able to offer that product.
The federal judge agreed in a ruling that said the USDA doesn't have the right to regulate the test and bar Creekstone from using it. If the ruling isn't appealed by June 1, the meatpacker is free to do additional testing.
It's hard to justify the USDA's stand. If Creekstone does universal testing and finds no mad cow disease, that finding supports the safety of the entire U.S. beef industry. If the testing detects mad cow disease, that gives beef producers, processors and regulators an opportunity to correct the situation. Outlawing the testing only makes it seem that USDA officials or meatpackers may be concerned about what additional testing would reveal.
Perhaps some American consumers would rather pay less for beef that probably is OK, but some might be willing to pay more for a product that offered an added measure of safety. Within the last month, an outbreak of salmonella across the nation was traced to peanut butter, and contaminated pet food caused kidney failure and death in hundreds of precious pets. Americans are becoming acutely aware of the vulnerability of their food supply to deadly contamination, either accidental or intentional.
It's primarily a consumer issue. Allowing a company to do additional testing on the meat or any other food product likely will add to the cost of that product, and it will be up to consumers to decide whether they're willing to pay that price. Recent incidents have shown that the current government inspection system doesn't guarantee the safety of food being sold in U.S. markets and restaurants. If some companies are willing to go the extra mile to ensure their product is safe, they should be allowed to do so.