US Farmers Oppose Testing
All Cattle For Mad Cow
By Christopher Doering
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Two-thirds of a sampling of American farmers polled by Reuters said they oppose mandatory testing of all U.S. cattle for mad cow disease, an approach used by Japan as a sure-fire way to ensure that deadly beef products do not enter the human food chain.
A similar margin of 70 percent of farmers questioned for the Reuters survey said they want the Food and Drug Administration to ban cattle remains from being fed to all livestock as a safety precaution against mad cow disease.
And more than half of those polled said the government should require identification tags for all U.S. cattle to allow faster tracking of animals if mad cow disease or another ailment is discovered.
The straw poll of 660 U.S. farmers was conducted at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting this week in Honolulu. The federation is the nation's largest farm group, representing producers of cattle and hogs as well as growers of cotton, corn, wheat, and soybeans.
The survey was conducted at random and does not attempt to weigh responses by state, farm size or other criteria.
The results point to a $23 billion industry still in shock after the U.S. Agriculture Department announced on Dec. 23 the first U.S. case of mad cow disease had been discovered in a Washington state dairy cow.
Japan and more than 40 other nations immediately halted imports of U.S. beef after the news, virtually freezing overnight the $3 billion export sector which represents 10 percent of U.S. beef business.
"People in the cattle industry know that we're going to have to start tracking our animals," said Paul Fugate, a Tennessee cattle and tobacco farmer, at the meeting.
But the Reuters survey found that 66 percent of farmers questioned said they opposed mandatory testing of all cattle at slaughter and rendering plants, a move some consumer groups say is the best way to keep mad cow disease out of U.S. food.
Mandatory testing is the approach that Japan wants Washington to adopt. And Japan is the biggest single buyer of U.S. beef, taking about a third of U.S. exports.
"I don't believe it would accomplish anything because we've got the safest food supply," Jason Luckey, a Tennessee cattle farmer, told Reuters. "You don't have that much more to gain except to create more panic."
The USDA and the American meat industry also insist that science does not support universal testing of all cattle, a procedure they say would cost at least $30 per animal.
Last year, the USDA tested about 20,000 animals for mad cow disease and plans to double the number of tests this year. The United States slaughtered nearly 36 million cattle last year, about four times more than Japan, which tests all its cattle.
A large majority of farmers polled by Reuters want the FDA to tighten its rules by banning the use of cattle remains in all livestock feed.
Kevin Gaukel, a Wyoming cattle farmer, said broadening the 1997 ban to chicken and pig feed would be "a good preventive measure" to remove another possible avenue for contamination.
But Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman told Reuters the current FDA feed rules are adequate. Banning so-called ruminant remains from feed for pigs and chickens would be needed only if public confidence in the food supply wavers, he said.
"Right now I think it might be too soon," he said.
Of farmers surveyed, 59 percent said they would support a mandatory ID system for all livestock. USDA is working with industry groups and state agriculture regulators on a voluntary ID program that is expected to cost more than $70 million.
The "trace-back" system, slated to begin for cattle, hogs and sheep in February 2005, would allow livestock suspected of diseases including mad cow to be identified within 48 hours by determining the farms, ranches or feedlots involved.
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