The announcement in late June of a second confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, followed by the announcement in late July of another cow producing preliminary “non-definitive” tests for BSE, continued to raise concerns about the safety of America’s beef and USDA’s surveillance program.

Ag Secretary Mike Johanns and America’s cattle industry claim, rightly so, that BSE is not a human-health concern. None of the animals involved in the confirmed or suspected BSE cases entered the food or feed supply. And a risk analysis conducted by Harvard University indicated that the risk of contracting the human form of BSE is nearly zero.

None of which seems to matter. The USDA and America’s beef industry are rapidly losing the public-relations battle over BSE.

America’s first case of BSE, announced in December 2003, turned out to be a cow born and, presumably, infected in Canada. The second BSE-infected cow was initially tested last November, yet follow-up testing was not conducted until June of this year. A month later, Secretary Johanns went before reporters in Washington with the news that another cow had produced non-definitive results, but the sample had been collected in April. (Results of the tests were unknown at press time.)

Such testing delays provide ample fodder for those who seek to criticize either USDA or beef in general. For instance, USA Today (in its Aug. 1, 2005, edition) calls USDA’s BSE-surveillance program ineffective, and claims “the two agencies charged with ensuring a safe beef supply, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have become as much a part of the industry’s public-relations team as they are public-health watchdogs.” USA Today, and others in the national media, called USDA’s testing practices “insufficient” and “lackadaisical.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president Jim McAdams of Adkins, Texas, authored an opposing view to USA Today’s editorial, published the same day. Mr. McAdams tried to reassure the newspaper’s readers of the safety of American beef by noting that USDA has “tested more than 419,000 animals with just one confirmed positive and another determined non-definitive at this time. This means the prevalence of BSE in the United States is extremely low.”

Mr. McAdams said the “call for increased BSE testing shows a real misunderstanding of the purpose of USDA’s surveillance program.” He also noted that the World Health Organization for Animal Health has studied the issue thoroughly and concluded that additional testing would not provide any extra protection for consumers.

But delays in testing suspect cows for BSE gives the appearance that Moe, Larry and Curly are in charge at USDA. And Secretary Johanns, seeking to reassure American consumers, has been criticized as an industry cheerleader for telling reporters he’s “going to have a steak for dinner.”

America’s beef supply is just as safe today as it was two years ago, before the first confirmed case of BSE. And BSE experts believe current regulations (the ruminant feed ban and elimination of specified risk materials) and testing procedures ensure that America’s beef continues to be safe from BSE. Yet USDA and the beef industry have stubbed its collective toe with testing delays. Those delays encouraged reporters to look for other “evidence” of safety concerns. Officials at USDA were called “Keystone Kops,” and “loopholes” in the ruminant feed ban (such as the feeding of chicken litter to cattle) were questioned.

America’s beef industry must now work to repair the damage to its image. Testing must be completed in a timely manner, and any so-called “loopholes” in the ruminant feed ban must be closed. In short, we must give our customers what they want. It won’t make beef any safer, or taste any better, but it will help silence our industry’s critics.