WASHINGTON, May 4 (UPI) -- The recent case of a Texas cow that displayed symptoms consistent with mad cow disease but slipped through the cracks of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's surveillance plan is not an isolated incident, an agency veterinarian and a consumer advocate told United Press International.
The revelation that the cow was not tested has generated alarm among the public and Congress, and a USDA veterinarian said cows displaying central nervous system disorders, such as the one in Texas, often are not tested for mad cow -- even though the department considers these animals the most likely to be infected with the disease.
"Sometimes Veterinary Services (the USDA branch responsible for picking up brains for mad cow testing) won't even show up," the veterinarian, who requested anonymity, told UPI. "If you tell them the cow is under 30 months (old), they won't bother with it."
The USDA recently announced an expanded mad cow surveillance plan aimed at testing an unspecified number of cows over 30 months old. The agency's position is cows under 30 months are unlikely to test positive, even if infected, because the disease can take several years to incubate. Yet, more than 20 cows under this age have tested positive worldwide, including one as young as 20 months in the United Kingdom.
Felicia Nestor, senior policy adviser to the Government Accountability Project in Washington, a group that works with federal whistleblowers, told UPI she is looking into claims from USDA inspectors there may be other suspicious animals that have gone unreported.
"From the evidence we have so far, we know (the Texas case) is not an isolated incident," Nestor said.
USDA spokesman Ed Loyd told UPI the agency's procedure is to test any and all cows exhibiting central nervous system disorders for mad cow disease.
Asked whether cows showing such symptoms were sometimes not tested, Loyd responded: "What I'm saying is that that's not the procedure. If there's a specific instance where such things are occurring, we should know about it ... so we can take the appropriate action."
If the Texas cow was infected, it would represent the second case of mad cow disease detected in U.S. herds in five months. The first and only confirmed case among U.S. cattle occurred in Washington state last December.
Because the Texas animal's brain tissue was not retained for testing, it will never be known with any certainty whether the cow had mad cow disease or was suffering from some other condition, such as poisoning or rabies.
In this case, a USDA veterinarian condemned the cow on April 27 at Lone Star Beef in San Angelo, Texas, because it had signs of a central nervous system disorder. The veterinarian apparently failed to abide by USDA regulations, however, and did not withhold brain samples for mad cow testing. The USDA is investigating why proper protocol was not followed but so far has released few details about the situation.
An official statement from Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service, offered no explanation of why protocol was breached.
"Standard procedures call for animals condemned due to possible CNS disorder to be kept until (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) officials can collect samples for testing," the statement said. "However, this did not occur in this case."
Although the cow's meat did not make it into the human food supply, the carcass was sent to a rendering plant, which could still entail risks for spreading mad cow disease among U.S. herds and possibly to people, consumer groups say. The concern is that humans can contract a fatal, incurable brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat infected with the mad cow pathogen.
"The USDA should be investigated," Michael Hansen, senior research associate with Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., told UPI. "Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this story. Maybe there's some kind of innocent explanation for this, but it does not engender confidence in the agency if an animal exhibiting neurological signs consistent with the disease is not even tested."
The system breakdown has caught the attention of at least one member of Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, ranking member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, called the USDA's failure to test the animal "inexcusable."
Harkin, one of the most vocal critics of the USDA in Congress, said the incident "calls into question the credibility of USDA's recently announced testing program."
Beverly Boyd, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Agriculture, said "industry sources" who saw the cow told her it more likely was suffering from an injury and not CNS disease symptoms.
"Animals are injured all the time at packing houses," Boyd said. "This is just one of the many instances that occur every day."
Still, the only conclusive way to rule out mad cow in animals with suspected CNS symptoms is to conduct a test.
Patty Lovera of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington, said the incident "confirms questions we've been asking since January about who looks at these animals if they go to rendering. The answer right now is no one, which is not comforting."
DeHaven and Masters wrote, "The Food and Drug Administration's feed ban prohibits rendered products from this or any other cow to be fed to other ruminants."
Hansen disputed that statement. Although the FDA proposed strengthening feed ban measures after the mad cow case last December, to date those improvements have not gone into effect, he said.
This means, for example, blood from the Texas cow is still permitted to go into calf milk replacer, Hansen said. In addition, its brain and spinal cord -- the most infectious parts if the animal had mad cow -- can be added to chicken feed, he said. This poses a risk because chicken litter waste, which can contain some remnants of chicken feed, can be scooped up and incorporated into cattle feed.
"If this animal were positive, yes, there is still concern," Hansen said.
FDA issued a statement late Tuesday saying its investigation into the incident found the animal in question had been rendered into meat and bone meal, which is used as livestock feed. FDA said the material is being held by the rendering firm and the agency has banned the use of it in poultry feed. However, the material will be permitted to be used in pig feed because the agency says pigs are not susceptible to mad cow disease.
To prevent the Texas situation from happening again, DeHaven and Masters said the USDA "is providing comprehensive training" on mad cow collection protocols to agency employees to "help ensure that clear communications occurs regarding collecting samples."
Nestor said, however, some agency inspectors involved with mad cow surveillance have told her they are not receiving any training. These inspectors would be responsible for holding an animal like the Texas cow for testing, Nestor said.
"If they didn't spot the signs, the cow would go right on in to the slaughterhouse," she said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com