Positive economic news this week was offset by the worsening conditions in Iraq. War news caused financial markets to drop despite encouraging signs from the job market.
For starters, the number of people filing new claims for jobless benefits is at a three-year low. Job cuts at big companies fell 12 percent in March. And retail sales at the nation's largest chain stores improved modestly last week.
In farm country, meanwhile, debate is heating up over testing for Mad Cow disease. USDA late Thursday rejected the plans of a Kentucky-based meatpacker to test every animal at its Kansas slaughterhouse. Creekstone Farms Premium Beef says its customers in Japan have promised to resume buying the company's beef if Creekstone tests every animal. In rejecting the plan, USDA said the consensus of international experts is that 100 percent testing is unnecessary.
Creekstone's plans also drew fire from within the American beef industry, which is worried about the cost of excessive testing. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says testing requires a "level playing field ... based on science." But the doors to the lucrative Japanese market remain closed, even as the debate drifts farther from the scientific realm to the political.
Japan endured its first case of the dreaded disease in 2001. Currently, the Japanese test all cows destined for slaughter -- more than one million per year -- for mad cow disease.
But the U.S. slaughters more than 35 million head annually and USDA claims there is no scientifically valid reason for testing of all cattle, particularly those animals younger than 30 months of age.
Last month, USDA announced a program that would test up to 268,000 head of cattle, a figure the Japanese find woefully inadequate.
This week, Japan rejected a USDA proposal to take the matter to the World Organization for Animal Health for resolution and USDA says it is now "difficult to predict" when the Japanese will reopen the border.
Meanwhile, though the public comment period on whether to allow Canadian cattle younger than 30 months to enter the United States ended this week, the rhetoric on the matter continues.
The border was closed to all Canadian beef products last May, when mad cow disease was discovered on an Alberta farm. Last fall, the U.S. lifted the ban partially, by permitting some forms of processed beef to cross the border into the States. Canadian officials were optimistic that all of the restrictions would be lifted early in 2004. But last December, after mad cow disease was discovered in a Washington state dairy cow that originated in Alberta, the U.S. opted to keep the ban in place.
This week, Senator Patty Murray of Washington and six other democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary Veneman, urging her to withdraw a proposal to open the border to shipments of live cattle from Canada.
Other lawmakers are expressing concern over the proposal as well. Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana this week called for an independent investigation into Canada's handling of its case of mad cow disease.