The upside down world of food safety – Opinion

Guebert is a columnist based in Illinois.

In the upside down world of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s leaders, sound science is what they say it is and food safety seems to be what is best for agribusiness. Every other differing idea or person has a nearly perfect chance of being ignored, talked to death or litigated to death.

Take the case of Creekstone Farms, the small, Kansas-based premium beef slaughterer and seller.

Four months after America’s first BSE-positive cow was discovered in December 2003, USDA denied Creekstone’s request to voluntarily test its slaughter cattle for BSE. The private testing, argued Creekstone, was a reasonable, market-based approach to ease customer concerns over the safety of U.S. beef.

Not so, said USDA and its big packer backers. USDA had the law on its side, a 1913 one it dusted off and bent to its purpose. The Big Four packers had their size: they kill 88 out of every 100 cattle in America and they didn’t want the added expense of testing a single one of them, especially since the taxpayers would fund USDA’s “science-based” testing.

For nearly two years thereafter, Creekstone negotiated with USDA to chart a government-approved path through the bureaucratic thicket. All came to naught.

Finally, in March 2006, the tiny packer filed suit in federal court to get access to the BSE test kits that the USDA claimed it solely controlled.

On March 29, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. handed Creekstone the test kits, noting the agency’s concerns over what the results of the private tests might imply to customers were not within USDA’s statutory responsibilities. The court also gave USDA until June 1 to appeal the decision.

For years USDA has played the nanny role when confronted with private efforts to differentiate products through testing or labelling or both.

Such counter-intuitive regulation is the anathema of the George Bush administration’s free market philosophy. But its chief beneficiaries, usually giant, multinational agbiz, love it because USDA’s back door rules keep smaller, innovative competitors from sniping Big Boy market share.

The vaunted consumer, whom USDA says it is protecting by not allowing the labelling, has less information about the product’s quality, safety and origin.

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