Johanns said the surveillance program should "reflect what we now know is a very, very low level of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the United States." He added that, even in its reduced capacity, the program would still enable the regulatory agency to prevent BSE and "exceed science-based international guidelines."
Some consumer groups disagree with this assessment, and argue that the reduction of the stringent testing program suggests the USDA is relaxing its protection of animal and consumer health.
The current program, which has tested more than 759,000 cattle since its inception in 2004, found two of the three confirmed BSE cases in the United States, but officials say the program was only designed to measure how prevalent the disease was. Collected figures put BSE cases in the United States at fewer than one in 1 million, so the USDA plans to diminish its testing from about 30,000 cattle a month to 40,000 a year.
Despite the low prevalence of mad cow cases, the move may have come at a bad time for the Bush administration, which is engaged in strong lobbying to lift export bans from countries such as Japan and South Korea. Many countries closed their borders to U.S. beef when the first American cases of the disease were reported in 2003.
Only 1 billion pounds of U.S. beef has been exported so far this year, down nearly 60 percent from 2003 figures.
Mike Adams, consumer health advocate and frequent critic of the USDA, saw the move as a step backwards for public safety. "The USDA is following a 'see no evil' policy of hallucinating that mad cow disease doesn't exist, then using that false belief to justify a dangerous reduction in safety testing," he said. Adams further notes that the USDA currently outlaws the testing of cattle for mad cow disease by ranchers and meat packers.