In the three weeks since the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in Washington, USDA has maintained that current testing methods are adequate, and that "the system works." Now comes word that the system may not be working as it was first portrayed.
The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that USDA has, at times, allowed slaughter facilities to select which animals should be tested. This goes against all the comments that every animal exhibiting neurological disorders was tested for the disease, and may actually corrupt findings of the much touted Harvest Risk Assessment. You see, that assessment is based on the idea that all animals with those symptoms were tested, which helps validate the statistical conclusions of the report. However, if packers could cherry pick cattle to test, they might have been choosing "sick" animals that were less likely to offer up a positive test for BSE.
In the report, a USDA spokesperson confirms that "sometimes" the agency had certain packers choose cattle whose brains would undergo screening for the disease, as part of a continuing survey aimed at determining whether BSE was present. But food-safety activists complain that such a role by companies could have tainted the survey, because officials had an incentive to send only the brains of cattle that appeared healthy.
Slaughter records show surveillance flaws
As part of that investigation, reporters across the country are digging into official records. United Press International (UPI) offers up the following information:
No animal was tested for BSE in Washington during the first seven months of 2003 and except for the infected animal, which was slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., no other cows were tested at that facility in the past two years.
Doing a survey of national test records, the wire service found that the federal screening program found that the USDA conducted tests at fewer than 100 of the nation's 700 slaughter plants. Little or no testing was conducted at some of the largest slaughterhouses and many smaller plants that specialize in slaughter of old or ailing dairy cattle. Many larger slaughter houses have a policy against accepting any downed animals, which would limit their identification of suspect cattle.
Consumer groups want more testing
Consumer and health groups sat down with Ag Secretary Ann Veneman Thursday to talk about the BSE situation and they're making demands. The groups want an immediate increase in testing of cattle for the disease, and they're asking for a mandatory animal identification system for tracking cows and beef cattle.
The groups, including the American Public Health Association, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen, say the beef industry still has too much influence on current actions.
One demand consumer groups are making is for testing of all cattle over 20 months old - a stricter standard than the 30 month standard used in Europe, which has had more than 200,000 cases of BSE (mostly in Great Britain). That 20-month standard would pretty much capture all of the 35 million head of cattle slaughtered each year in the United States.
When a government agency declares an emergency, there are rules in place that provide more freedom to take specific actions. Very quietly, on Monday, USDA declared an emergency in Washington state, according to a report from the McClatchy newspaper group. The emergency, which grants USDA more authority to quarantine herds and destroy animals will also allow the agency to make added funds available for the investigation.
According to the report, the declaration was published in Monday's Federal Register, but no mention was made of the move in briefings or updates issued by USDA. The agency says the declaration is "not a big deal" and similar to moves made by the agency in the wake of other issues including plum box and Newcastle disease.