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Mike

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Now HE'S questioning the USDA!
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For those who are pushing for more government involvement in agriculture, please take note of the goings on at USDA within the last week or so.

What exactly is going on here? Piecing that together raises as many questions as it does answers.



There were numerous contradictions during the USDA news conference June 10 conducted by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Dr. John Clifford, USDA-APHIS chief veterinary officer. When talking about how this re-testing of old cases using other tests came about, Johanns first said the USDA Inspector General (IG), "decided to retest."



Then Clifford said the OIG had "recommended" the additional tests.



Later Johanns explained that as a part of its evaluation of the surveillance program, the "IG decided...that this additional testing should be done."



Still later, Johanns said, "The Inspector General, as you know, who operates independently in our federal form of government, decided to request the additional testing."



The OIG's own statement said, "OIG auditors noted an unusual pattern of conflicting test results on one sample and initiated additional testing of that sample."



All of which raises the main question here, "Who's in charge of this BSE Surveillance program, USDA- APHIS or the auditors? Who establishes testing protocol and who decides to change it?"



It would appear that Johanns and Clifford were doing a tap dance shortly after having been blindsided. Johanns said, in pointing out the transparency of USDA's communications, that he had known about these results only ten minutes before the news conference began.



Much of the industry has spent the last couple of years defending USDA-APHIS' proper authority to establish testing protocol and run the testing system. Now some auditors blindside them...and the beef industry?



It is obvious that USDA is absolutely determined to be the first to release any bad news regarding BSE. Knowing it is impossible to keep secrets within the walls of D.C. bureaucracies, they went public as soon as they were told. They cannot be faulted for that.



The question is, did the IG have the authority to do what it did? An auditor makes recommendations and examines procedures. The OIG's own mission statement states that it is to conduct "audits and investigations." Its list of goals state that it is to, "Support USDA in the enhancement of safety and security measures...increase the efficiency and effectiveness with which USDA manages..."



That doesn't sound to me like it gives an auditor the permission to remove highly sensitive and important biological samples from a secure storage area and get them tested on their own hook? This is not reviewing the procedures. Was this within USDA procedure or was this a breach?



There are other questions about the details. What was the purpose of the 20X "enrichment" of the sample tested? Clifford said that the enrichment was "something that is allowed...in order to determine if there are low levels of abnormal protein present." [It] is a "widely used" technique, he said.



Yet his explanation for the two types of tests, the immunohistochemistry (IHC) test characterized as the gold standard for BSE and the Western blot test in question here, suggests that the IHC test would be more likely to yield a positive or negative result, while the blot test would yield different degrees of results, based on the concentration of the sample. Acknowledging that the blot result on this 20X- enriched sample was a "weak positive" suggests the test on a normal level sample would have come up negative.



Even if all these re-tests would have come up negative, the aforementioned questions need answers. In addition, if OIG is exerting such influence under the guise of an audit, what scientific background does it have to recommend or unilaterally initiate changes in testing procedures? Or did USDA officials in charge of the BSE program order changes in testing protocol?



Some of the questions during the news conference from the general media demonstrated the evils inherent in an incident like this. Some were already assuming we had another BSE case. Others were asking how USDA and the Ames lab could have made a "mistake" with the IHC test. Such erroneous assumptions are not what we need. And the whole incident provides a convenient platform for Consumer's Union, R-CALF and others to repeat allegations slamming the safety of the beef supply and USDA's testing procedures. We'll address their statements in another edition.



Several people have asked if Consumer's Union had something to do with getting this retesting done. CU themselves pointed out that they have been asking USDA to do this for six months. That's not news.



What's more important for cattlemen to understand is that there are all kinds of groups pressing USDA and other government agencies all the time to do things the activist groups want done. Public Citizen has a continuing program "investigating" the USDA inspection system, constantly complaining that the system is inadequate, that consumers are in danger from USDA every day. The even have a pet derisive term for the HACCP principles upon which modern process control is based. They say snidely that HACCP stands for "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray."



Consumer Federation of America's Carol Tucker Foreman has coordinated and participated in demonstrations in front of USDA.



CU was happy to see this result and quick to use it as a platform for further proclaiming their distortions, inaccuracies and fear mongering. But make no mistake. Washington is full of groups like this always trying to make trouble and pounce on opportunities when they get them handed to them.



That's why seeing groups like R-CALF and OCM handing these kinds of groups' credibility and cooperation on a platter is so revolting and so dangerous for our industry.



But USDA has some questions to answer and explaining to do to the U.S. beef industry.



The Agribusiness Freedom Foundation promotes free market principles throughout the agricultural food chain. The AFF believes it is possible to value the traditions and heritage of the past while embracing the future and the changes it brings. The AFF is a communications and educational initiative striving to preserve the freedom of the agricultural food chain to operate and innovate in order to continue the success of American agriculture.
 

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