Company's Mad Cow Tests Blocked
"USDA made a decision based on old-school bureaucratic thinking that may well end up with us losing millions of customers and hundreds of American jobs," Tiahrt said. "They're afraid of change and new technologies, and that's just not acceptable." He says, however, that others in the Kansas congressional delegation disagree.
A further complication is that the Japanese ban on American beef has become an increasingly complex and contentious trade issue. In an effort to reopen the Japanese market, USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman wrote earlier this month to Japan's agriculture minister, Yoshiyuki Kamei, asking to discuss the beef export ban under the auspices of the World Organization for Animal Health. That body has already said that testing all animals for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is not necessary. The Japanese quickly turned down Veneman's offer to meet.
"I was expecting that you would make an appropriate proposal that is in accordance with Japanese consumers' wishes," Kamei wrote back. He said Veneman's offer appeared to compromise progress already made in ongoing consultations between the two nations.
Japan's intense sensitivity over the issue began in 2001, when mad cow disease was first detected in an animal there. Since then, universal testing there has found 10 more infected animals, and few have had the characteristics that normally put an animal at high risk.
While all American beef exporters have been hurt by the ban on sales abroad, Creekstone is especially vulnerable because it is small -- with less than 1 percent of the market -- and it only packs beef. The big players in the business -- companies such as Tyson Foods, Swift & Co. and Smithfield Foods -- also sell pork and chicken and can weather the beef ban much better.
If Japan will not buy their beef, the more diversified companies can sell pork, which they are doing now at a tidy profit. As a result, Fielding says, the beef export ban works to the advantage of the big firms and could end up squeezing many small operations such as his out of business.
The USDA formally announced its refusal to allow private testing on Friday, with USDA Undersecretary Bill Hawks saying, "The use of the test as proposed by Creekstone would have implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted."
While Creekstone officials said they were disappointed and are considering a legal challenge, they know the obstacles are great. The largest and most powerful meat-packing companies are dead set against Creekstone's proposal, as is the group that represents ranchers and feedlot owners, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Association President Jan Lyons said that allowing one company to test all its cattle could quickly snowball into a situation where all companies would have to do similar testing. "If testing is allowed at Creekstone and other companies, we think it would become the international standard and the domestic standard, too," she said. "But it's a standard that's not based on science, would be very expensive and so is something our government definitely needs to resist."
A State-of-the-Art Plant
The Creekstone packing plant does not look, smell or operate like a traditional slaughterhouse. It is an entirely contained building that, from the outside, looks as if it could be manufacturing computer chips or cooking apple pies, rather than slaughtering 1,000 cattle a day.
Its production line is intentionally slow to enhance worker safety and ensure that the animals are dead before butchering begins. In 2001, previous owners built state-of-the-art holding pens and walkways for cattle heading to slaughter, designed by animal welfare specialist Temple Grandin to keep the animals calm.
The average wage is between $11 and $12 an hour, and Arkansas City Manager Curtis Freeland said the company is about as good a corporate citizen as it could be. "The turnover rate at the plant is low, and they want to work with the community," he said. "This is not what people imagine when they think of a slaughterhouse."
One of the largest employers in southeastern Kansas, Creekstone provides jobs to 790 men and women in an area that has been reeling from the closing of several other large plants. But since December, the company has laid off 40 people and put the rest of its workforce on a three-day workweek.
Fielding went to Japan in February and came back convinced that Japanese consumers know their locally raised beef has been tested for BSE and would demand the same of American beef. By then, much of the American beef shipped to Japan had been replaced by meat from Australia, which has never detected mad cow disease in its herd and so does not require testing. The switch is especially galling to American meat producers such as Fielding, who worked hard over many years to expand the historically small Japanese beef market.
Creekstone filed its petition to start testing all animals in February, after Japanese buyers told Fielding they would resume business if the company agreed to follow Japan's testing rules. Japanese officials have supported Creekstone's petition, although Tadashi Sato at the Japanese Embassy in Washington said last week that trade could not be restored unless the USDA not only allowed the testing but also certified that it was being done properly.
In southeast Kansas, the issue is being closely watched. Kevin Gallaway, owner of Gallaway's steak restaurant in Winfield, a buyer of Creekstone beef, said the USDA should approve the testing:
"If our government keeps the company from testing the animals and it goes under as a result," he said, "I can tell you that people around here would be plenty angry about it."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company