WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not test any cows for mad cow disease in the past seven months at the same Texas facility where federal testing policies for the deadly disorder were violated last month, United Press International has learned.
The USDA also failed to test a single cow in 2002 at another Texas slaughterhouse that processes high-risk, downer cows, according to agency testing records obtained by UPI under the Freedom of Information Act. Downer cows are unable to stand or walk, which can be an indication of mad cow disease, as well as other disorders.
USDA spokesman Jim Rogers told UPI the agency has not conducted any mad cow tests at Lone Star Beef Processors, in San Angelo, Texas, this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2003.
The revelation comes in the wake of a case at Lone Star last month, in which a cow that had exhibited signs of a brain disorder was not tested for mad cow disease, despite a USDA policy to test all such cows because they are considered the most likely to be infected.
Allegations have emerged that an offsite USDA supervisor made the decision not to test the cow. Both the USDA and its Inspector General have launched investigations to determine why agency policy was violated in this case.
As UPI previously reported, USDA's mad cow testing records for the past two years show only three tests had been conducted at Lone Star in 2003 and none in 2002.
The low-level of testing irks consumer advocates because Lone Star, the 18th largest slaughterhouse in the country, processes high-risk, older dairy cattle, slaughtering approximately 172,000 per year.
These cows have a high likelihood of being infected compared to other cattle because they have the most chance of being given feed containing mad-cow-infected tissue and they are old enough for the disease to have run its two- to eight-year incubation course. The cow in Washington that tested positive last December was an older dairy cow, and the cow that tested positive in Canada in May of 2003 was an older cow.
"We have, in my opinion, a government policy (on mad cow disease) of 'Don't look, don't find,'" said Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned vegetarian, who has insisted mad cow is present in U.S. herds and has called for increased testing for several years. The concern is humans can contract a fatal, incurable brain-wasting disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat infected with the mad cow pathogen.
"When you're slaughtering 35 million head of cattle and testing as few cows as the USDA does, it's like sending a blind man to find a needle in a haystack," Lyman told UPI. The agency tests less than 1 percent of cows slaughtered annually.
USDA's Rogers said the reason no tests were done at Lone Star so far this fiscal year "is that facility generally doesn't take downers," which is the type of animal the agency's surveillance efforts focus on, because they are more likely to be infected than seemingly healthy animals.
Lone Star spokeswoman Rosemary Mucklow, who also represents the National Meat Association, told UPI the decisions to test cows are made by the USDA, not the company. She added that Lone Star did not process many, if any, downer or sick animals.
"If there's no target animals, we're probably not going to be hanging out there or looking," Rogers said.
However, at nearby San Angelo Packing, a facility that does process downers, the USDA conducted no tests in 2002 and 45 mad cow tests in the first 10 months of FY 2003, according to the agency's mad cow testing records. San Angelo is the 22nd largest slaughterhouse in the country, processing some 142,000 cattle per year, according to Cattle Buyers Weekly magazine.
Remarking on USDA's position that its surveillance program focuses on downer cows, Lyman -- referring to the cow with brain disorder symptoms that was not tested at Lone Star last month -- said, "It looks to me like they don't test them no matter what they are."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., also finds the failure to test the Texas cow troubling and thinks it might be indicative of a larger problem with the USDA's surveillance system. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Thursday, Waxman notes the agency's own internal document from 1997 explicitly said they were not testing some cows with signs of brain damage.
The document, a Veterinary Services Memorandum, states: "Based on formation provided by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the number of adult cattle (2 years of age or greater) condemned at slaughter due to CNS signs is much greater than the number whose brains have been collected for testing."
The testing breakdown in Texas "would be worrisome even if it were an isolated event, but I am concerned it may reflect wider problems with the surveillance program," Waxman told UPI. "I have asked USDA to develop processes to ensure that all such cattle are properly tested and tracked," he added.
Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, called the lack of testing at Lone Star in the past seven months "disgraceful."
It will make it difficult "for the USDA get the confidence of the consumer or the foreign markets if they're not testing these high-risk dairy cattle," Friedlander said. More than 50 nations, including Japan -- the largest importer of U.S. beef -- have closed their borders to U.S. beef in response to the Washington state mad cow case, and many have not yet reopened them.
In an interview with UPI, Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the agency's mad cow testing program, confirmed that San Angelo processed downer animals, and said more than 200 mad cow tests had been conducted at the firm since the beginning of FY 2003, on Oct. 1, 2002.
However, spokesman Ed Loyd had told UPI previously only 90 animals had been tested during that time at San Angelo. USDA records obtained by UPI show no tests in FY 2002 and only 45 tests from October 2002 through July 2003, at San Angelo.
A woman at San Angelo Packing, who refused to identify herself, declined to comment, saying the president of the company, whom she also would not identify, was out of town.
Asked about the lack of tests at San Angelo in FY 2002, DeHaven said the USDA's surveillance plan collects samples by region, not by individual slaughterhouse.
"With few exceptions we've met those (regional) goals," DeHaven said. "So while we may not have hit every slaughter plant within a region, we would have collected an appropriately geographically dispersed population in each region."
One exception to USDA's achievement of its regional goals occurred during FY 2003, which ended in September. That year, the agency failed to get enough tests to meet its target goal in the region that includes Washington state, where the mad-cow-positive animal was detected just two months later in December.
UPI previously reported that no tests were conducted in the state for the first seven months of 2003 and no tests were conducted for the past two years at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., where the infected cow was discovered.
The USDA plans to launch an expanded surveillance plan beginning on June 1, which will include testing 20,000 older, healthy animals at 40 slaughter plants.
DeHaven said he did not know if that would include samples from San Angelo or Lone Star and he declined to release a list of the names of the 40 slaughter plants.
"We have it internally (but) I don't know that we want that to be public, quite honestly," he said. "I do have a bit of concern about putting that out publicly for fear that it might cause them (the slaughterhouses) to be less cooperative."
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org