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USDA under fire over BSE case in Texas

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Mar 2, 2005
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USDA under fire over BSE case in Texas

Tam Moore
Oregon Staff Writer

Consumers may not know what to make of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s handling of the Texas cow stricken with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but some of the nation’s major newspapers in their editorial columns are blasting USDA bumbling.

Nine countries that had been accepting U.S. beef have reinstituted a ban put in place when the first U.S. BSE cow was confirmed in December 2003. Japan, still debating lifting of the first ban, is under public pressure to slow down the process. The Asahi Shimbun, an English-language newspaper in Tokyo, urged “cautious steps” in an editorial.

The editorial ink began flowing on this side of the Pacific last week, four weeks after the USDA announced that an internal investigation prompted retesting of brain tissue, resulting in the June 24 confirmation of the first native-born BSE case.

“The more federal officials downplay mad cow disease, the scarier things get,” said a Los Angeles Times editorial beneath the headline “Mad beef policy.”

In Texas, where the Brahman-cross cow was delivered dead to Champion Pet Foods’ Waco plant on Nov. 15, 2004, the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service reopened an investigation. It had been closed in late November, little more than a week after the Texas A&M Animal Diagnostic Laboratory twice got positive BSE tests out of brain tissue taken from the cow.

The A&M lab director last week denied running the initial screening tests when interviewed by the Houston Chronicle.

“With the DNA testing that we have done thus far, we have identified two animals that are definitely related to the animal that was incinerated and determined to be BSE – or to have BSE. Those animals would have been either an offspring or a dam to this animal,” said John Clifford, the USDA’s chief veterinarian.

Clifford said the BSE cow was born on the ranch and remained there until sent to auction. That narrows the search for possible feedstuff contaminated with the BSE-causing agent, but gives Food and Drug Administration investigators a trail more than 10 years old. At midweek, FDA had nothing to report on that part of the investigation.

BSE, a rare and fatal brain disease in cattle, is thought to be transmitted when young animals eat feed contaminated with the agent.

There are also said to be “spontaneous” cases of BSE at a rate of about one in every 1 million head of cattle.

The traceback to the birth herd and trace-out of calves from the 12-year-old cow were initially called off in late November when the USDA’s National Veterinary Laboratory ran two immunohistochemistry tests that read as BSE negative. Retesting June 10, with confirmation from both the USDA lab and the International Reference Laboratory in Weybridge, England, overturned that late November action.

“The USDA told me it’s from somewhere in the southeast part of the state,” Benjy Bauer, owner of Champion Pet Foods, told the Houston Chronicle. “That’s all they would say, and believe me, I’ve asked them several times. I want to know, too.”

Neither the USDA nor the Texas Animal Health Commission were saying where the birth herd is, only that it is known and the owner is cooperating with the investigation.

APHIS Information Officer Jim Rogers said updates on the trace-out of herd mates and calves is being posted at 9 a.m. weekdays on the Internet at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/issues/bse/epi-updates/bse-epi_report.html.

The USDA said the cow was first sent to an auction market, where it apparently went down during handling associated with the Nov. 11 sale. Four days later, the Brahman-cross was dead on arrival at a cow slaughter plant and was then shipped to Champion.

Dan Murphy, a columnist for Meatingplace.com, late last week pointed out that despite it all, there’s a need for perspective.

“It’s still a single animal among a national herd of some 100 million cattle, and it was 12 years old and thus exposed to potentially contaminated feed before FDA restrictions on feeding ruminant proteins went into effect in 1997. Its existence is hardly a condemnation of the current firewalls,” wrote Murphy, who a couple of years ago was information director at American Meat Institute, the large packer trade association.

In Washington, D.C., Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced identical bills that would move APHIS, part of the USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine into a new food safety agency. DeLauro is a longtime critic of the USDA’s handling of BSE.

The Houston Chronicle and Associated Press contributed to this report. Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His email address is [email protected]

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