Last year, after discovery of a BSE-infected cow in Washington state, U.S. Department of Agriculture's quick and reassuring response to both industry and the public received many commendations for a job well done.

Today, USDA is perceived in a much different light. The people's department has squandered much of its congressional support and lost the confidence of many folks in the livestock industry on the issue.

To its credit, the USDA has worked tirelessly to open back up export markets for U.S. beef. However, to date, little progress has been made. Mexico has allowed certain beef products to return to its market. Canada has remained steadfast in its restrictions against movement of any U.S. beef into their country. The largest overseas market for U.S. beef, Japan, has refused to budge from its firm position that every U.S. animal, whose products are exported into Japan, be tested for BSE. Initially, USDA rejected Japan's demand on the grounds that it lacks (and it does) any scientific basis. However, USDA now seems poised to flip their position. At the same time USDA announced increased testing and monitoring for BSE, a small beef processor from Arkansas City, Kansas announced its intention to test every animal for BSE to regain access to the Japanese market. Creekstone Farm's announcement rocked the industry's boat.

Meanwhile, USDA began to send a series of conflicting signals to the U.S. industry and the rest of the world. First issuing a statement that Creekstone had no legal authority to begin testing every animal. After one over eager lawmaker spoke up in behalf of Creekstone, USDA wavered and now is rumored to be considering letting Creekstone to proceed as a pilot program--if true, possibly the worst idea the USDA has come up with in years. Creating an area of gray when there is only black and white--much of the industry is left holding their heads in confusion. Granting one firm access to a foreign market while restricting others is politically and practically a bad, bad idea.

Requiring every animal slaughtered for export, while undermining the decades old message that food safety trade restrictions be base on sound, legitimate science, would at least be fair to all U.S. beef processors--though the high cost of testing would likely become the burden of producers to bear.

Instead of coming out with one foot in front of the other regarding the Creekstone situation, USDA is stumbling around almost as badly as a cow with BSE.

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