Purdue University experts say it's not necessary or economically feasible to test each cow that goes to slaughter for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease in the United States, even though there have been calls for complete testing in the weeks following the discovery of the illness here.
Leon Thacker, a Purdue veterinary pathologist and head of the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, instead proposes testing animals over 30 months of age as well as high-risk and disabled cattle for mad cow. High-risk and disabled cattle already are tested in the United States.
High-risk animals are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as cattle with neurological disorders, non-ambulatory cattle and those dying from unknown causes. "We're looking at a disease that typically has an incubation period of five to six years - most of the cattle that go to market are 24 months old or less," Thacker says.
In the United Kingdom, all cows over 30 months of age are tested and removed from the food supply, as are high-risk and disabled cows. In the U.S. around 36 million cattle go to slaughter each year, compared to a combined 2-3 million in the United Kingdom and Japan.
Of the U.S. cattle processed annually, around 6.3 million were cows or bulls, according the 2002 National Agricultural Statistics Service slaughter report. These are likely to be over 30 months of age.
A Reuters survey conducted at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting in Honolulu found that 66% of farmers opposed testing all cattle at slaughter and rendering plants.
Testing is expensive but may be worth it
Chris Hurt, a Purdue Extension agricultural economist, says preliminary estimates place the cost of testing at about 1% of the value of beef animals, so economically speaking, testing cattle 30 months or older is feasible. "At $50 per head for 6.3 million cattle, the cost is $315 million, which is less than 10% of the value of lost exports," Hurt says. Efficiencies in mass testing could make the cost much lower, he says. Some estimates are closer to $30 per head for the rapid test procedure.
"If processors have to pay the added costs, they will shift some of the additional costs back to producers in the form of lower cattle bids," Hurt says. "Over time, producers will reduce production, and eventually the cost would be shifted primarily to beef consumers in the form of higher beef prices. However, this scenario may be financially difficult for processors and producers in the short run."
Taxpayers also might end up footing the bill if testing is subsidized, similar to federal meat inspection. In that case, the packing plant would receive compensation for every cow tested. While taxpayers would bear the costs, consumers would have somewhat lower beef prices, Hurt says.
"That alternative redistributes the cost of the program to the general taxpayers, and that pretty well distributes the cost to the people who eat beef and avoids the short-term disruption to packers and producers," he says.
Even if the price of beef goes up, experts agree that consumers would likely be willing to pay for the increased safety.
Hurt says another issue is how quickly testing capacity would become available as the number of cattle tested moves from about 20,000 per year to more than 6 million.