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Latest mad cow debacle shows USDA can't be trusted

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Mad Max

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Apr 3, 2005
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Latest mad cow debacle shows USDA can't be trusted
thestate.com (South Carolina) by associate editor CINDI ROSS SCOPPE

Remember that news blip last fall about the cow we thought might have mad cow disease - the one we at the U.S. Department of Agriculture came back a few days later and announced had tested negative on our "gold-standard" follow-up test?

We were wrong.

Well, not entirely wrong.

One of our follow-up tests showed the cow was positive.

But that didn't seem important enough to mention. In fact, it didn't seem important enough for us to do any more follow-up on.

Then we mixed the sick cow's parts with parts from four other cows, so we had to incinerate them all to avoid contamination. Not that we had any reason to think any of them were dangerous, of course.

And we froze the sick cow's brain samples, even though that makes it harder to do some tests.

And forgot to keep any written records.

Oh, and somebody mislabeled the tag that described the breed of the questionable cow, which is why it took us so long to figure out where the animal came from.

But we didn't want to bother you with all these pesky details. I mean, it's not like eating meat from a mad cow will turn your brain into a sponge. And kill you. And there's nothing you can do about it.

OK, it is like that. But still....

Anyway, we wouldn't be troubling you with all this if that pesky inspector general hadn't started nosing around.

You know, that woman who raised a big stink a year ago about how the first mad cow wasn't really a downer, which meant our whole pathetic testing program was based on a false assumption. And that even if that wasn't the case, the program is a sham anyway since ranchers get to veto inspectors who want to test their sick cows.

Well, somehow she heard about that positive test that we didn't bother telling you about, and she had the audacity to order a new test.

She doesn't have the authority to do that!

What does she think her job is? To protect the public health?

Look, we at the USDA take our job very seriously: Protect and promote the American beef industry. That's an important calling. Public health? Give me a break.

So this uppity inspector general gets another positive, and she sends the frozen cow brain to the world's most respected mad-cow testing laboratory in London, and they come up with another positive. And another one.

So we were wrong.

But don't worry. U.S. beef is safe.

Who knows? Maybe U.S. beef is safe. Maybe it's possible that no mad cows have made it into the food chain. And none will.

But if they haven't, and don't, that's sheer luck. It's certainly no thanks to the Keystone Cops at the Agriculture Department, whose incompetence would make a great comedy routine if it weren't so frightfully deadly.

Ignore all the screw-ups with the two mad cows we've identified, and you're still left with a policy that no reasonable person could consider sound.

The government uses a two-pronged approach to screen for mad cows.

The part most people are familiar with is testing sick, or downer, cows. That's how the latter mad cow was discovered. It's important to test those cows, but it's not sufficient, because it's based on the flawed assumption that only downers are infected.

Consider the latest mad cow, which officials believe became infected by eating tainted feed before the 1997 law went into effect that banned feeding cattle and sheep parts to cows. Our testing program is based on the absurd assumption that it would have been perfectly safe to eat brain tissues from that cow during the eight years between the time it became infected and the time that the prions (altered proteins) had eaten enough holes in its brain to make it unable to stand up.

As a back-up, the government does test every 90th cow headed for slaughter, using the same sampling methods that pollsters use when they tell us what the nation is thinking based on 1,000 phone calls. Officials say this will prevent any sick cows from ending up on your dinner table.

But it won't, because that's not how sampling works. Sampling does not identify all of a population that fits a certain definition; it simply tells us how many of that population fit that definition.

If 1 percent of the apparently healthy cows you sample test positive, that means 1 percent of the cows you don't test are also positive. In other words, for every one mad cow you find, there are 89 more you don't find.

Officials will say that doesn't matter because the sampling of apparently healthy cows hasn't turned up any mad cows yet. But that ignores the fact that sampling always includes a margin of error. Finding no mad cows in routine testing doesn't mean there aren't any; it means there aren't a lot.

Things like that don't matter when you're trying to find out whether voters prefer a president who wears boxers or briefs. But when you're trying to protect the public from a deadly disease, it does matter. Let a single mad cow into the food chain, and literally hundreds of people will be infected as a result. And we won't know about it for 10 or 15 years, because it takes that long for the prions to eat your brain.

Even if the folks at the USDA were competent, it would be outrageous to trust the nation's health to an agency whose job it is to promote the cattle industry. Its incompetence makes it more critical than ever that the power to police the stockyards be turned over to the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control.

And until that happens, anybody interested in preserving their brains might want to switch to grass- or grain-fed beef.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at [email protected] or at (803) 771-8571.

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