WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government plans to maintain indefinitely its faster level of testing for mad cow disease, rather than scaling back testing in December as originally envisioned.
With the lucrative Japanese market poised to reopen to American cattle, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says he wants government scientists to continue testing about 1,000 cattle a day.
``I have just been very reluctant to even set a date as to when we would bring that to a close,'' Johanns said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``It's safe to say the enhanced surveillance is going to extend beyond the end of December.''
Johanns said his decision is not about Japan, which bought more American beef than any other foreign customer until the U.S. discovered its first case of mad cow disease. Johanns said he wants to make sure testing represents all regions of the country and that healthy animals are tested.
Still, critics of the department said higher testing levels are needed to reassure Japan and other trading partners.
``I've said time and time again, there is little risk of BSE in U.S. beef, but it is obvious that we have not yet convinced key trading partners of that,'' Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Friday.
Harkin and other lawmakers have been pressuring the department to do at least 20,000 more tests on cows that are healthy before testing is scaled back.
The government has been testing only sick, injured or dead cows, those deemed to be at ``high risk'' of having mad cow disease. ``High risk'' means animals showing signs of mad cow disease, such as nervous system problems or emaciation, ``downer'' animals that can't walk or dead animals.
Tests are done on brain tissue from cows, so animals must be killed before they can be tested. There is no test that can confirm the disease in a live animal.
Johanns' predecessor, Ann Veneman, promised to test healthy animals based on recommendations from a panel of international experts on mad cow disease. Johanns said he recently reread Veneman's comments on testing healthy animals in transcripts from a congressional hearing.
``Very clearly, she made a commitment to do it,'' Johanns said. ``That's good enough for me. I intend to honor that commitment. So we've been working our way through 20,000 healthy animals.''
The nation's first case of mad cow disease was confirmed in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state. In response, the Agriculture Department increased its testing in June 2004 from an average of about 55 daily to more than 1,000 a day.
Authorities have tested 516,496 animals and turned up a second case in a Texas-born cow that tested positive in June. The number of cows tested is about 1 percent of the 45 million adult cows in the United States.
As part of its campaign to protect against the spread of mad cow disease, the government also inspects processing and rendering plants and tests animal feed. The only way mad cow disease is known to spread is through feed containing certain tissue from infected cows. Adding animal protein to feed was common practice to speed growth until the U.S. banned it in 1997.
Most of the government's testing and inspection programs have drawn criticism from federal investigators, including:
_Authorities at first declared the infected Texas cow to be free of the disease, but the Agriculture Department's inspector general raised concerns about conflicting test results and ordered another round of tests, which confirmed the cow had mad cow disease. A final report from the inspector general is expected later this year.
_The General Accountability Office, an auditing branch of Congress, said this week that Food and Drug Administration testing is too slow at times to prevent cattle from eating feed that might be contaminated.
_The GAO criticized FDA for its feed mill inspections earlier this year, saying in one case, a feed mill accidentally mixed banned cattle protein into cattle feed. By the time inspectors discovered the problem and the mill issued a recall, potentially contaminated feed had already been on the market for about a year, GAO said.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
Eating meat products contaminated with infected tissue is linked to a rare, fatal illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, that has killed more than 150 people worldwide, most of them in Britain, where there was an outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s. One person died in the United States but was living in Britain during the outbreak.