The secretary of agriculture is hearing from both sides of the issue.

WASHINGTON (AP) – Rural lawmakers said Wednesday the Bush administration went too far in its response to the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.

While some members of Congress want more stringent regulation of the U.S. beef supply, the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee questioned Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman about her decision to ban the sale of meat from animals too sick or injured to stand or walk unassisted.

Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, said their criticism stemmed from worries about how agriculture officials would screen animals for mad cow disease. Until the ban, announced Dec. 30, most of the animals tested were selected at slaughterhouses.

“I continue to be concerned we have a gap in the system,” said Goodlatte, the committee chairman.

Stenholm said public perception, not science, was behind the decision.

Veneman said testing probably would increase at rendering plants, where the sickest animals typically are sent. The department, which plans to double the testing for mad cow to 40,000 animals this year, also is considering testing on farms, she said.

In her first appearance in Congress since the Dec. 23 mad cow diagnosis, Veneman was praised for her handling of the issue.

She generally faced friendly questioning.

“U.S. beef is safe for consumers in the United States and around the world, and we are urging our trading partners to base their decisions on science,” Veneman said.

She said restoring U.S. beef exports, worth an estimated $3.2 billion last year, is a priority.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), eats holes in the brains of cattle. It is incurable. Humans can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from consuming contaminated beef products.

The questioning over downed animals was a reprise of last year’s congressional debate, when the Senate approved a ban and the House defeated it by three votes. At the time, the administration also opposed it.

The Washington state Holstein with mad cow disease was a downed animal. Seeking to reassure domestic and foreign beef eaters, the Agriculture Department reversed itself just a week after the diagnosis.

Also Wednesday, lawmakers in the House reintroduced legislation to make the ban on downed animals a matter of law, not regulation.

Rural lawmakers also questioned Veneman about a national animal identification system, testing for mad cow disease and country-of-origin labeling.

She has promised to speed the ID system, which would ease the search for others in the herd and sources of feed. But she said Wednesday that legislation might be required to address ranchers’ concerns about confidentiality.

Veneman said the department probably soon will approve a quick test for the disease that could make results available in 48 hours. She dismissed calls to test every animal, which is done in Japan. “It’s something we don’t think is based on sound science,” she said.

The administration supports a two-year delay on country-of-origin labels on foods, including beef, calling it a marketing tool, not a food safety program. The issue is among the disputes that have held up a $373 billion spending bill to fund the Agriculture Department and most other domestic programs.

Veneman also said the government has sufficient authority to enforce product recalls because it can pull inspectors from meat plants, effectively shutting down the plants.

Officials recalled the meat from the sick cow and others slaughtered with it as a precaution. The department has found 22 of the 80 cows that came to the United States in 2001 from the same farm in Alberta, Canada, as the sick Holstein. Canadian records indicate an additional 17 cows from the same herd were brought to the United States later; U.S. officials have found just three of those animals.

The animal parts from the Holstein most likely to carry the infection – the brain, spinal cord and part of the lower intestine – were kept from the human food supply.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department background on mad cow page:

AP-ES-01-21-04 1915EST

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