WASHINGTON - The Agriculture Department began expanded national testing for mad cow disease Tuesday, intending to test about 220,000 animals for the brain-wasting condition over the next year to 18 months, according to the Associated Press.

Officials said the department was able to handle the first day's samples even though most of the dozen regional laboratories aren't yet equipped to perform the initial tests.

The government last year conducted mad cow tests on tissues from 20,543 animals, virtually all of them cattle that could not stand or walk and had to be dragged to slaughter. After the nation's first case of the disease in December, the department initially doubled the number of animals to be tested this year to 40,000.

With many foreign governments still reluctant to ease bans on U.S. beef, the testing program was expanded at a cost of $70 million to include as many as 220,000 slaughtered animals, following recommendations from an international scientific review panel. About 35 million head of cattle are slaughtered each year in the United States.

The overwhelming majority of tests will be on animals considered most likely have mad cow — those showing any sign of brain disorder, unable to stand on their own or deemed unfit for human consumption for other reasons. Tissue samples from those animals would be tested, as would samples from animals that die on farms.

The department's testing plans also include about 20,000 animals that appear healthy but are at least 30 months old, the age at which mad cow disease appears.

The 12 state-operated labs around the country will perform the initial tests on brain and central nervous system tissue from slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Results from those tests will be returned in 24 to 72 hours.

Biopharming picks up

SAN FRANCISCO - Biotechnology companies are quietly pushing to splice more human genes into food crops after the practice was nearly abandoned last year, a Washington-based advocacy group told the Associated Press.

The news comes some 18 months after College Station,Texas-based Prodigene Inc. caused an uproar by accidentally mixing such crops with conventionally grown plants in Nebraska. At the time, giant food manufacturers called for tighter regulation of such experiments, and biotech titan Monsanto Co. announced it was pulling out of the field.

The number of federal regulatory approvals and applications for these outdoor plantings — often called "biopharming" because the idea is to lower drug-making costs by using plants as delivery agents — have nearly doubled in the last 12 months when compared to the previous year, according to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"The biopharming industry seems to be back in business," the group concludes in a report being released June 2 that is based on publicly available U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Prodigene is again growing genetically engineered corn in Nebraska after the USDA approved a "pharmaceutical application" from the company in April.

John Reiher, the company's chief executive since August, would not say what was being spliced into the corn, how many acres were under cultivation or where exactly it was growing.

Other companies with similar applications approved this year include Hayward, Calif.-based Planet Biotechnology and Ventria BioScience of Sacramento.

The USDA has approved seven of the 16 applications it received between May 2003 and April, with the nine pending applications all submitted in the last four months, the report says. Its author, Greg Jaffe, says the USDA has denied only two such applications since 2000.

WTO talks revived

With little fanfare, trade ministers and diplomats have revived the global trade talks that fell apart in Cancun last year, hoping to salvage an agreement before the U.S. presidential election in November, according tot he New York Times.

.At the World Trade Organization, diplomats are debating a proposal this week from the Group of 20 developing nations to reduce or eliminate tariffs on agriculture, the issue that must be resolved if progress is to be made.

.The goal is for the trade organization to catch up to where it should have been in Cann by its meetings in Geneva at the end of July.

.This round of talks, the Doha Round, which is dedicated to helping the developing world, got a second wind after the United States and the European Union offered new compromises in order to recover the momentum lost last September.

."There are very good atmospherics," Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesman, said. "The long-standing problems of agricultural subsidies are slowly but surely lurching towards a solution.

.A new round of talks could lead to improvements in the economies of the world's poorer countries by providing billions of dollars from trade, but only if rich nations opened up their markets to agricultural products and cut back on the $300 billion in annual subsidies they give their farmers, according to the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

.But farmers in the United States, Europe, Japan and other wealthy nations have fought against most attempts to cut their payments.

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