By Jon Sarche –
When a rumor hit the commodities trading floor in Chicago three years ago that Kansas cattle had contracted foot-and-mouth disease, prices plummeted.
A rumor that lasted only a day cost the beef industry an estimated $50 million and forced agriculture officials to spend weeks assuring consumers that the food supply was safe.
With this case and others like it in mind, lawmakers across the country are working on ways to keep livestock-disease investigations secret until absolutely necessary.
Proposals already have passed in Idaho and Wyoming, while lawmakers in Colorado, Maryland and Utah are considering bills this spring.
In Wyoming, false reporting of an animal-disease outbreak is a crime.
“There’s just no reason to get consumers riled up about something that didn’t happen,” said Mel Coleman Jr., whose family founded Coleman Natural Products Inc., which sells beef in Colorado and 12 other states.
But Jean Halloran, director of Consumers Union’s Consumer Policy Institute in Yonkers, N.Y., said there are good reasons to fully disclose all information about testing for animal diseases – especially mad cow, the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
“In a disease as serious as this, we have to have complete openness and transparency,” she said.
In December 2003, a few weeks after a Holstein in Washington state was screened for mad cow disease, the government said the animal had tested “presumptive positive.” A few days later, it said the results had been confirmed in independent testing.
Though no more U.S. cases have been confirmed, the government announced three times last year that its preliminary rapid-test procedures had provided inconclusive results.
“It’s real easy to get information like a false positive out in public. It’s real hard to get the information that it was (proved negative) back out to the public,” said Kathleen Kelly, who runs a ranch in northwestern Colorado.
The preliminary tests for mad cow are designed to be conservative and prompt further, more accurate testing, said Jim Miller, director of policy and initiatives for the Colorado Agriculture Department. He said a bill moving through the Colorado Legislature would allow the state to keep secret that there was a false positive result. If asked, officials could say only that an investigation is underway.
Source: Denver Post