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USDA's message on mad cow raises critical questions

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Mar 2, 2005
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USDA's message on mad cow raises critical questions


Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - In announcing the nation's second confirmed case of mad cow disease, Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns pointed out that the disease is so rare in the United States that it was like searching for "a needle in a haystack."

It's a point he made repeatedly, and indeed, Johanns had the statistics to back it up. In the last year, an enhanced program to search for mad cow disease in America's cattle herd tested 388,000 cows and all but three of the tests were negative.

Of the three that were inconclusive and required more sophisticated tests, just one cow was confirmed to have mad cow disease.

"The point here is that after doing 388,000 tests we're just simply getting to the point where ... it's a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor," Johanns said Friday, when the case was disclosed. "It's just so rare in this country that we run into (mad cow disease)."

But Johanns' attempt to spin the news as a positive carries with it a message that many find hard to swallow: that a teensy bit of mad cow disease - which turns the brains of cattle to mush - is little cause for alarm. A human variant of mad cow disease, which is believed to be caused by eating contaminated meat, has killed about 150 people worldwide, mostly in England.

His upbeat message wasn't helped by the manner in which the USDA discovered the diseased cow: the agency cleared the animal of having mad cow disease last fall, even though an experimental test found abnormalities, and only retested it months later at the insistence of the USDA's inspector general.

The USDA's carefully crafted message raises critical questions about how the federal government will deal with mad cow disease in the weeks and months ahead. On Sunday, USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said the agency is continuing to use an enhanced surveillance program, started a year ago, "which we will use to make a determination on what will be the appropriate level of surveillance going forward."

Prior to Friday's announcement about the diseased cow, the USDA had been considering scaling back its testing program for mad cow disease, which officials emphasize was simply meant to measure the extent of the problem. USDA officials insist that the public is protected by a series of "firewalls" that include a ban on feeding cattle parts to cows and keeping sickly cows out of the food chain. Even without finding last week's case of mad cow, the animal would not have made it into the U.S. food supply because it was a sickly and sent rendering plant.

"The fact that this animal was blocked from entering the food supply tells us that our safeguards are working exactly as they should," Johanns said.

But even some of Johann's strongest supporters said the USDA needs to improve its testing procedures for mad cow disease.

"It clearly shows that we need to develop a better testing system," said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. "In fact, we need to develop the best testing regime in the world."

Critics went much further, arguing that the USDA's program seems intent on hiding mad cow disease, rather than finding it, and insisting that the current firewalls are full of loopholes. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration has backed away from an earlier pledge to ban cattle blood, poultry litter and table scraps from animal feed, which some believe can spread mad cow disease.

John Stauber, author of "Mad Cow USA," said the USDA's program is based on the false assumption that mad cow doesn't exist in this country. If the USDA really wanted to know the extent of the problem and protect consumers, Stauber said, it would develop a much more aggressive testing program like those used in England and Japan.

"I think this finding has been a tremendous blow to the Department of Agriculture," said Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis. "It pulls back the curtain on what has been a fraud of testing program."

Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, said the fact that the USDA botched the testing on the diseased cow last November raises questions about the validity of the other 388,000 tests. His organization is urging the USDA to use the most sophisticated testing possible on all cattle older than 20 months of age. Nearly all mad cow animals have been 30 months or older.

"When you are talking about something this serious, with such serious consequences for the beef industry and the public health, it definitely calls into question their testing regime and their commitment to the public health," Culp said.

The latest discovery comes at an inopportune time for the USDA. The agency had successfully shifted most of the blame for the first U.S. case of mad cow disease - discovered in Washington state in December 2003 - to Canada, where the cow was born, and USDA officials had gone on the offensive in recent months.

Besides talk about scaling back the testing program for mad cow disease, the USDA had successfully relaxed the guidelines at World Organization for Animal Health for countries with a history of mad cow disease. They also were using increasingly sharp rhetoric with Japan and South Korea, whose borders have remained closed to U.S. beef since the first case of mad cow disease was disclosed.

When he assumed his job in January, Johanns said reopening the beef trade with Japan - previously the biggest importer of U.S. beef - was his top priority.


© 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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