Friday morning top National Cattlemen's Beef Association officials met with Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to discuss the current market system surrounding the retesting of a previously-declared negative bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) animal.
NCBA's main concerns lie with USDA's handing of the case and possibly going against an industry agreed-upon protocol. The protocol includes a rapid screening test followed by an immunohistochemistry (IHC) test. The Inspector General ordered a Western Blot test the week of June 5 to verify the initial IHC, also recognized as the "gold standard" for BSE testing.
"Our concern is that the program must operate under a consistent and established testing protocol, in which the industry and the American public can have the utmost confidence," NCBA President Jim McAdams says. "Because the animal in question was already identified by a rapid-screen test and removed from the food and feed supply, the most recent actions by USDA and the OIG did not increase the safety of U.S. beef or improve the health of the U.S. cowherd. Instead, they simply put the industry at greater economic risk."
In a conference call on Friday the main sticking points for NCBA is that the testing program is to determine the "prevalence of the disease." McAdams explains that NCBA feels USDA has gone outside of protocol on two to three occasions, one was when USDA double tested the cow in question two times with an IHC test in November 2004.
Senior USDA scientist Juergen Richt from the Ames laboratory where all U.S. BSE cases are tested says the unusual findings from multiple tests may mean that the suspect animal has a relatively new strain of BSE. USDA is running DNA tests to see if it may be an atypical form of the disease. Atypical forms of the disease so far have been confirmed in Japan, Italy, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Poland.
Gary Weber, NCBA executive director of regulatory affairs, questioned whether many of the cases in other countries were truly atypical. "The OIG felt that the surveillance program was to go beyond clinical test and need to go further and use whole series of other tests even though two inconclusive cases showed it wasn't a case of bSE," Weber says.
NCBA renewed its call for USDA to clearly communicate the scientific basis for the testing protocol that it will follow, and the timeframe that the industry can expect to bring this current issue to resolution.
"We believe it is imperative that USDA clearly restore integrity to the process to avoid further and lasting criticism that can jeopardize consumer confidence and access to international markets, and creates unnecessary market volatility," says McAdams. "NCBA remains committed to a science-based approach in addressing these concerns, but we simply cannot tolerate actions that serve political pressures or pseudo-science over a sound surveillance program."