In the spring of 2004, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, a small cattle operation in Kansas, wanted to use a then recently approved rapid test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, to test all of the company's cattle. The occurrences of mad cow then had led several countries, such as Japan and Korea, to impose a broad ban on the import of US beef and these sanctions were very much hurting small enterprises like Creekstone Farms. The Japanese ban was costing Creekstone $40K per day and the company had to lay off 50 employees and furthermore, Japan was demanding that all cattle be tested just as they are there.
But the US Department of Agriculture refuse to allow Creekstone to test all of the their cattle, claiming that such complete testing was "not scientifically warranted.'' In reality, what the USDA was trying to prevent was any requirement on large beef producers from having to remain competitive with smaller operations that were more than willing to ensure their product was safe and to comply with Japanese import requirements. At the time, Creekstone indicated that it might go to court to fight what appeared to be an entirely political and small-minded decision.
Three years later, Creekstone's fight with the USDA wound up in US district court and US district judge James Robertson ruled that
Creekstone sought to use the same test the government relies on and said the government didn't have the authority to restrict it.But the USDA still believes that it does and has now vowed to
fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.Robertson's ruling was due to become effective on June 1. Note, though, that ruling is not about whether all beef producers must test all animals but only that Creekstone, or any other like-minded entrepreneur, can test all its animals if it so chooses. Clearly, Creekstone feels that complete testing will help it in the market place and such a move should be hailed by the self-described "free market" boosters the Bush administration claims they are. It is within the context of this particular story that this venal administration's declarations about their love of the "free market" appears to be the utter bullshit we already knew they were.
Not to be outdone by their own naked posturing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, only a few days ago, the Bush administration demanded that South Korea lift import restrictions on US beef and now has vowed to fight any increased testing, despite the fact that the request to South Korea is based in part on a report that has described beef as a "controlled risk," with adequate testing levels, testing levels the Bush administration refuses to employ. I'm guessing this might be one of a spectrum of reasons as to why George Bush likes the decades-long US occupation on the Korean peninsula: it makes it much easier for the South Koreans to appreciate the American perspective.
As with all such intertwined and globalized pathways, this story comes with its own rich vein of irony as it was only a few weeks ago that the Chinese food industry was being hammered by US criticism for the tainted pet food issue and, more recently, befouled toothpaste and cough syrup, and faced threats of increased regulation of Chinese food imports. Rather than brush off the criticisms and calls for increased regulation, as the Bush administration has so brusquely done, the Chinese promised reform and have just handed down a death sentence to the former head of China's top food and drug safety agency, Zheng Xiaoyu, on charges of bribery and corruption.
Whether South Korea will bend to White House demands to relax import restrictions on US beef remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the days of easily claiming that the US food industry is the "safest in the world" are long past and rather than refusing to recognize the cache of increased regulation and testing that it would impose on everyone else, the Bush administration must embrace its own rhetoric about food safety and properly ensure that what is produced here is every bit as stringently tested and regulated as we would require everywhere else.