WASHINGTON - Before deciding whether to scale back mad cow testing in the U.S., Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns wants to convince Japan to end the ban on U.S. beef imports.
Nevertheless, the wishes of Japan - which was the biggest export market for the U.S. beef industry - will not influence the U.S. Department of Agriculture's testing decision.
"We're certainly going to be very transparent with our trading partners, but the [testing] decision is going to be influenced by science," said Ed Loyd, press secretary for the USDA. "An analysis of the testing that's taken place so far will help us indicate the proper level of mad cow testing going forward."
In an effort to reopen the Japanese market, a USDA technical team met with Japanese government officials early last week to answer questions about its inspection processes.
"They've concluded their meetings and they said that the discussions were very thorough and complete, and from our viewpoint it's another step in the path toward resuming beef exports," Loyd said.
In December, Japan lifted its two-year ban on imports of American beef that was imposed after the United States' first confirmed case of mad cow disease in December 2003. The ban was reinstated just one month later after Japan received a shipment of U.S. veal cuts containing backbone, which has been banned from Japan's food supply. Although the beef posed no safety risk, the product failed to meet the specifications of the export agreement, according to the USDA.
The USDA was criticized last month when it announced its intention to scale back on mad cow testing in the U.S. despite confirmation of the third U.S. case of mad cow disease. The USDA contends the objective of its enhanced testing program was never food safety, but rather to gauge prevalence of the disease.
The USDA expanded mad cow surveillance program to include about 1,000 tests a day - up from about 55 - after finding the first case of the disease in the U.S. in 2003. In a given week, 6,500 to 7,500 tests are conducted.
As of last week, 667,000 tests had been performed, said Jim Rogers, spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
"It was always our intention that the expanded testing program would last for between 12 and 18 months but then we decided that we needed more information" before forming a timeline, Rogers said.
The program will end sometime this year, according to Loyd. Once it ends, the results will be analyzed and a decision about future mad cow testing in the U.S. will be made.
Meanwhile, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef has filed a lawsuit against the USDA for refusing to allow it to purchase mad cow test kits for its own voluntary testing. For the past two years, Creekstone has sought permission to test because the company believes customers want assurances the meat is free of the disease.
Creekstone cited a December 2005 poll by the Kyodo News Service that finds more than half of Japanese consumers want U.S. beef to be tested for mad cow disease.
Creekstone is challenging the USDA's claim that it has the legal authority to control access and use of the test kits.
"The test kits come from a company in France and the USDA is barring us from purchasing them," Creekstone spokeswoman Stephanie Barr told SN. "It's referencing the 1913 Virus-Serum-Toxins Act when it says that it has the authority to control bringing the kits to the U.S."