WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General is considering opening an investigation to determine why the agency violated its own policy and allowed the import of millions of pounds of Canadian processed beef products that were banned due to concerns about mad cow disease, United Press International has learned.
If the OIG proceeds with an investigation, it would be the fourth inquiry it has launched involving mad cow disease-related issues since the first case of the deadly disease in U.S. herds was discovered last December.
OIG counsel David Gray told UPI his office is looking into the issue but at this point has made no decisions about whether to launch an investigation.
"We're evaluating what's been reported in the media regarding the importation of processed Canadian beef," Gray said. "Anytime we get a request, we evaluate it and determine what action we think is appropriate in light of allegations received."
He added that at this point he did not want to characterize how the OIG might respond.
The OIG's consideration of the issue was spurred by a letter Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent to Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong last Thursday, urging that she initiate an investigation.
Schumer asked the OIG to investigate possible improper approval of banned meat for import and determine where the meat was distributed for final consumption. Schumer's interest was sparked by the fact that most of the imported products came in through his state at a border crossing in Buffalo.
He also requested the OIG look into who at the USDA made the decision and if the meat industry put pressure on the agency to ignore the Canadian restrictions.
"It is important to ensure that the American consumer was not exposed to higher risk from mad cow disease to appease Canada or the meat industry," Schumer wrote in the letter. The concern is humans can contract a fatal, incurable brain illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat contaminated with the mad cow pathogen.
USDA officials acknowledged last week they had erred in allowing in the banned products, which included millions of pounds of ground beef, hot dogs, sausage and other processed beef items. The agency had banned these items because it deems them a higher-risk for containing the mad cow pathogen than other beef products such as steaks.
The agency banned all cattle and beef products from Canada in May 2003, after a cow in Alberta tested positive for mad cow disease. The ban was relaxed in August, but ground beef and other processed beef products were still prohibited. Yet, the agency quietly allowed companies to apply for certificates that exempted their products from the ban and products began coming across in September 2003 and continued for eight months until April 2004. The USDA has not disclosed which companies received the permits.
The revelation the agency had violated its own ban created an uproar in Congress, with some members holding private meetings with USDA officials over the issue. At least one senator, Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called for the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on the grounds the USDA did not adequately inform the public it was allowing the prohibited items to be imported.
A spokesman for Veneman said last week the secretary was unaware the banned products had been allowed entry.
The illicit imports were first brought to light by the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, which used publicly available commerce records from the U.S. Census Bureau and statistics from USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service to determine that nearly 37 million pounds of processed beef items were imported from Canada.
Last week, USDA officials disputed that figure, saying their data only showed about 7 million pounds of banned items were imported. But Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, said Wednesday his organization has requested the records the USDA used to calculate their figure, and so far, the agency has not provided them.
At a news briefing last week, USDA officials acknowledged they erred in allowing the banned beef items into the country. One of the officials, Ron DeHaven, administrator of the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the items were low-risk and would have been acceptable for import under the agency's provisions if they had not been processed.
The officials did not explain why the agency violated its announcement in October that it would conduct a formal rulemaking process and would not make a decision on whether to allow in the banned products until it received public comments on the matter.
USDA spokesmen Ed Loyd and Ed Curlett and spokeswoman Julie Quick did not respond to several requests from UPI for comment on the OIG investigation or whether the agency would launch its own investigation into the issue.
The USDA conducted an internal investigation into the recent incident in Texas, in which a cow with signs of a brain disorder was not tested for mad cow disease, in violation of the agency's policy. That investigation has been completed but the USDA has not made the results public.
The OIG also launched an investigation into the Texas incident, but that probe is still ongoing. The OIG is conducting two other investigations involving mad cow issues. One is focused on allegations official documents were altered in the Washington case after the cow tested positive for mad cow disease to indicate it was a downer or unable to stand. The other is an audit to review the USDA's overall mad cow surveillance program.
Consumer groups said the OIG should go forward with an investigation into the Canadian imports.
"They should investigate who knew what and when they knew it," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "I don't think the secretary knew, but I suspect there are other high-level political officials that did," DeWaal told UPI.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute in Washington, told UPI, "The OIG ought to have a report that shows the decision-making tree on this and who signed off on this."
Foreman, who served as USDA's assistant secretary for food and consumer services from 1977 to 1981, said based on her experience in the government, a decision on such a high-profile issue as mad cow could not have been made without a paper trail.
DeWaal said it would be important to evaluate the assertions this meat posed no threat to public health.
"USDA seems far more interested in restoring trade in beef products than in really investigating the impacts to public health," she said.
"They've been ignoring the risks from (mad cow disease) in the human food supply since the 1990s, on the basis that we didn't have (mad cow) in this country, so now these assertions from the agency that there's no possibility that contaminated meat could reach U.S. consumers is really questionable," DeWaal said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com