In February, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, the 9-year-old, Arkansas City, Kan., processor of Black Angus beef, requested permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin private testing of all its Black Angus cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Meetings last month between John Stuart, Creekstone's president and chief executive officer, and representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, failed to change the agency's position that universal testing is not necessary -- and that all tests should remain exclusively under government control. Creekstone does a sizeable export business with Japan, one of the largest importers of U.S. beef products. That country, however, has refused to drop its BSE-related ban on American beef until the United States adopts more stringent control standards, such as universal testing. Negotiations are at a standstill.
SN: Critics of your effort to promote private BSE tests say you're harming efforts to present a united front to American consumers, and particularly, to U.S. export partners like Japan. How do you see the impact of your role as a private test advocate on negotiations?
Stuart: We at Creekstone Farms are proponents of a free market system that should allow us to react to customer and consumer needs. Our desire to conduct private testing for BSE at our Kansas processing facility is a direct response to requests from our export customers. We have never inferred there is anything wrong with American beef, and we feel additional testing should be welcomed in order to help show the world we produce a wholesome product whose quality is unparalleled. We feel we have had a positive impact. The negotiations were at an impasse and the attention that has been focused on the topic over the past several weeks has only helped create new dialogue. We believe continued dialogue on the topic is better than an impasse any day.
SN: The USDA also mentioned concerns over test protocols. If you did have the chance, how would your own testing program work? How would you ensure the tests are correctly administered, processed and analyzed to prevent glitches like false positives?
Stuart: Creekstone Farms, in all discussions with the USDA, has repeatedly stated we would follow any and all BSE testing guidelines outlined by them. We have even stated we would welcome them to conduct the tests themselves inside of our plant if they so desired. And, just as there will be protective firewalls built into the USDA's own BSE testing protocol, those same precautions would be followed in any testing program Creekstone Farms would initiate. Concerns over false positives in testing programs are not exactly untilled turf. We encountered the same concerns several years ago when widespread E. coli testing programs were initiated. We dealt with the issue in the past successfully, and we can do so again.
SN: There is concern that processors using private BSE tests might use the results more for the sake of promoting their own brand rather than supporting an early-detection network. How would Creekstone use these test results? Would you label your beef "BSE Free" or something to that effect?
Stuart: One of the keys of successfully branding any product is establishing points of differentiation that meet the needs of the marketplace. In this case we feel that if export customers wanted to label our beef as being BSE Tested, and that is important to their customer base, then they should be allowed to do so. The issue in Japan, for instance, is much more intense compared to the United States where BSE has not necessarily been a top-of-mind concern for most consumers. We feel additional BSE testing -- the results of which we anticipate being 100% negative -- would only help to re-establish consumer confidence in American beef both domestically and abroad.
SN: Supermarket retailers have been largely silent on the issue. What have you heard from your domestic retail customers?
Stuart: Many retail customers have told us that they don't necessarily buy off on the USDA's argument that BSE testing of our cattle may not be scientifically justified due to the fact that we process only younger cattle. How can you, in reality, have too much data when it comes to food safety? [They] also said the USDA's decision not to allow testing on our younger cattle is in itself a contradiction. It was reported in April that the USDA, for the past two years, has been testing animals that are under the age of 30 months. If such tests are not needed, why have they been conducting them? Our efforts have met with much domestic retail support -- even though many have said they probably would not label our beef as "BSE tested."
SN: Have you been contacted by any other processors who support your position? What are your next steps?
Stuart: We have heard from several other processors who have indicated they view increased private testing as one way to help restore consumer confidence in our products -- both abroad and at home. As a next step in getting resolution to the matter, Creekstone Farms has been in contact with former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman's law firm to challenge the USDA's ruling.