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Regulatory Watch: Congressional scrutiny expected in response to mad cow

The first-time appearance of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in the United States is likely to renew debate in Washington over food inspection regulations, and many industry representatives see some type of increased regulatory scrutiny in the works.

"Obviously Congress is going to look into this and I think we can expect some increase in oversight of how cattle in the United States are processed," said Chris Galen, vice-president for communications at the National Milk Producers Federation.

Galen said the most obvious area of improvement is a better system for tracking the 100 million head of U.S. cattle from the feedlots to the processing plants. He said dairy farmers have long been in favor of better regulatory recording keeping in that area.

The beef industry was not quite so quick to endorse regulatory changes. Terry Stokes, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, pointed to a Harvard study that he said concluded current measures taken by government regulators "make the U.S. robust against the spread of BSE to animals or humans should it be introduced into this country." Even so, Stokes said the industry would do whatever is necessary to maintain confidence in the safety of the meat supply.

"We will work closely with the USDA to carry out a full investigation and determine what additional preventive measures, if any, need to be taken to continue to protect animal and public health," he said.

The Bush Administration quickly came under criticism from Democrats in the wake of the mad cow diagnosis, but even with 2004 being an election year and the prospect of Congressional hearings, Galen doubts federal regulatory policies will become a political football.

"The current USDA regulatory procedures were, for the most part, implemented during the Clinton Administration," Galen said. "I doubt it will become a partisan issue."

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