WASHINGTON, June 15 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to notify industry officials of positive mad cow test results at least one hour before informing the public, according to a meat industry newsletter obtained by United Press International.
The revelation comes as government officials are being investigated for possibly leaking information about the first U.S. case of mad cow in December to commodity traders prior to telling the public.
The USDA launched an expanded surveillance program June 1 in response to the December case that involves initially screening cows with a rapid test. Those tests can yield false positives, so they are being categorized as inconclusive until confirmed by additional tests.
According to the June 7 issue of Lean Trimmings, a newsletter put out by the National Meat Association, "If a batch contains inconclusive results, plant personnel will be notified by 2:30 p.m. EST the day the results become available, and that information will also be posted to (USDA's) Web site by 3:30 p.m. EST."
A statement on NMA's Web site says, "Generic information concerning the inconclusive result will be publicly released after the market closes for the day, after the plant and other key personnel or associations have been notified, with at least an hour between the two notifications."
The statement goes on to say USDA officials told industry representatives in a private meeting, "No establishment information will be publicly released, including the city or town of the slaughtering facility."
Consumer groups, which have been requesting a meeting on mad cow issues with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for six months, objected to the USDA's plan to notify industry first.
"If they're not going to notify the public of the plant's identity, then there's no reason the plant needs to be notified beforehand," Felicia Nestor, senior policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., told UPI.
"Why does the plant even need to know? I don't get that at all," Nestor said. "That would seem to facilitate people in the plant being able to take advantage of markets," she added. The plant personnel could in turn notify other industry representatives, including the various trade organizations, she said.
The USDA and the National Meat Association did not respond to requests from UPI to comment on this article.
Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C., told UPI he was not aware the agency's plan was to notify plant personnel first, but he did not see any reason for concern about insider trading.
"That'd be against the law," Keys said, noting companies often have access to information they could use for insider trading, but do not act on it.
"It's a courtesy, if anything," Keys said. "An hour beforehand ... it's almost simultaneous."
The notifications of positive or inconclusive mad cow test results are apparently slated to take place after the close of the U.S. cattle futures market, but Nestor said that may not resolve the problem entirely.
"The American market is not the only market in the world," she said. Other markets, such as those in Europe or Japan, could still be utilized by those with inside information.
In January, various consumer groups, including GAP, Public Citizen and the Consumer Federation of America, requested the USDA hold a public hearing on the mad cow issue. The groups reiterated their appeal just last month. So far, their requests have gone unanswered.
"It's totally outrageous," Nestor said. "The USDA has had closed-door meetings with industry from the very beginning (when the U.S. mad cow was detected in December) and throughout these (six) months since, and not a single one for the public," she said.
"Basically, it says the only stakeholder group the USDA cares about is the industry," she said.
A statement on USDA's Web site says so far it has not received any positive tests or inconclusive results in its expanded surveillance program. However, Veneman and other USDA officials have said publicly in recent months they would not be surprised to find additional infected cows as more animals are tested.
Since late December, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been investigating cattle futures trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for "the possibility that certain commodity traders had advance knowledge ... that 'mad cow' disease had been found in a cattle herd in the northwestern U.S.," the agency said in a Jan. 28 statement.
The infected cow was initially tested Dec. 9, 2003. The USDA did not confirm and report the results to the public until Dec. 23, two weeks later.
"The investigation seeks to determine whether news of the announcement was leaked in advance from government or other sources," the CFTC statement said.
Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington, told UPI her organization first heard a rumor of the December mad cow case shortly before noon Dec. 23. They did not receive confirmation until approximately 3:30 p.m., Batra said. The USDA did not inform the public until two hours later, at 5:30 p.m.
CFTC chairman James Newsome told a Senate Agriculture subcommittee meeting in May the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington was involved in the mad cow investigation and he expected it to be completed this summer.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com