WASHINGTON, March 15 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture was quick to assure the public earlier this week that the third case of mad cow disease did not pose a risk to them, but what federal officials have not acknowledged is that this latest case indicates the deadly disease has been circulating in U.S. herds for at least a decade.
The second case, which was detected last year in a Texas cow and which USDA officials were reluctant to verify, was approximately 12 years old.
These two cases (the latest was detected in an Alabama cow) present a picture of the disease having been here for 10 years or so, since it is thought that cows usually contract the disease from contaminated feed they consume as calves. The concern is that humans can contract a fatal, incurable, brain-wasting illness from consuming beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen.
"The fact the Texas cow showed up fairly clearly implied the existence of other undetected cases," Dr. Paul Brown, former medical director of the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory for Central Nervous System Studies and an expert on mad cow-like diseases, told United Press International. "The question was, 'How many?' and we still can't answer that."
Brown, who is preparing a scientific paper based on the latest two mad cow cases to estimate the maximum number of infected cows that occurred in the United States, said he has "absolutely no confidence in USDA tests before one year ago" because of the agency's reluctance to retest the Texas cow that initially tested positive.
USDA officials finally retested the cow and confirmed it was infected seven months later, but only at the insistence of the agency's inspector general.
"Everything they did on the Texas cow makes everything they did before 2005 suspect," Brown said.
Despite this, Brown said the U.S. prevalence of mad cow, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, did not significantly threaten human or cattle health.
"Overall, my view is BSE is highly unlikely to pose any important risk either in cattle feed or human feed," he said.
However, Jean Halloran of Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., said consumers should be troubled by the USDA's secrecy and its apparent plan to dramatically cut back the number of mad cow tests it conducts.
"Consumers should be very concerned about how little we know about the USDA's surveillance program and the failure of the USDA to reveal really important details," Halloran told UPI. "Consumers have to be really concerned if they're going to cut back the program," she added.
Last year the USDA tested more than 300,000 animals for the disease, but it has proposed, even in light of a third case, scaling back the program to 40,000 tests annually.
"They seem to be, in terms of actions and policies, taking a lot more seriously the concerns of the cattle industry than the concerns of consumers," Halloran said. "It's really hard to know what it takes to get this administration to take action to protect the public."
The USDA has insisted that the safeguards of a ban on incorporating cow tissue into cattle feed (which is thought to spread the disease) and removal of the most infectious parts of cows, such as the brain and spinal cord, protect consumers. But the agency glosses over the fact that both of these systems have been revealed to be inadequately implemented.
The feed ban, which is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office in two reports, the most recent coming just last year. The GAO said the FDA's enforcement of the ban continues to have weaknesses that "undermine the nation's firewall against BSE."
USDA documents released last year showed more than 1,000 violations of the regulations requiring the removal of brains and spinal cords in at least 35 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with some plants being cited repeatedly for infractions. In addition, a violation of similar regulations that apply to beef exported to Japan is the reason why Japan closed its borders to U.S. beef in January six weeks after reopening them.
Other experts also question the adequacy of the USDA's surveillance system. The USDA insists the prevalence of mad cow disease is low, but the agency has provided few details of its surveillance program, making it difficult for outside experts to know if the agency's monitoring plan is sufficient.
"It's impossible to judge the adequacy of the surveillance system without having a breakdown of the tested population by age and risk status," Elizabeth Mumford, a veterinarian and BSE expert at Safe Food Solutions in Bern, Switzerland, a company that provides advice on reducing mad cow risk to industry and governments, told UPI.
"Everybody would be happier and more confident and in a sense it might be able to go away a little bit for (the USDA) if they would just publish a breakdown on the tests," Mumford added.
UPI requested detailed records about animals tested under the USDA's surveillance plan via the Freedom of Information Act in May 2004 but nearly two years later has not received any corresponding documents from the agency, despite a federal law requiring agencies to comply within 30 days. This leaves open the question of whether the USDA is withholding the information, does not have the information or is so haphazardly organized that it cannot locate it.
Mumford said the prevalence of the disease in U.S. herds is probably quite low, but there have probably been other cases that have so far gone undetected. "They're only finding a very small fraction of that low prevalence," she said.
Mumford expressed surprise at the lack of concern about the deadly disease from American consumers. "I would expect the U.S. public to be more concerned," she said.
Markus Moser, a molecular biologist and chief executive officer of Prionics, a Swiss firm that manufactures BSE test kits, told UPI one concern is that if people are infected, the mad cow pathogen could become "humanized" or more easily transmitted from person to person.
"Transmission would be much easier, through all kinds of medical procedures" and even through the blood supply, Moser said.