WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims it has found no evidence to support allegations by one of its meat inspectors that mad cow disease safeguards are being violated, possibly exposing consumers to the deadly illness, but United Press International has seen internal agency documents that verify violations have occurred for many months.
The documents, called non-compliance reports or NRs, show several instances in which slaughterhouses were cited by USDA inspectors for not properly marking cows over the age of 30 months. This means the specified risk materials, or SRMs -- brains, spinal cords and other parts of the animals deemed to be the most risky for transmitting mad cow disease to humans -- did not have to be removed.
The failure to correctly identify older animals or remove the SRMS is a violation of a USDA policy established in 2004, after the first confirmed case of mad cow in U.S. herds was announced. That policy was meant to protect consumers if additional mad cow cases were detected.
Stanley Painter, a USDA inspector and chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, claimed last December he knew of several instances in which this policy had been violated. Painter said union officials worried that many violations may go undetected and SRMs could enter the food supply if shortcomings in the USDA policy were not fixed.
The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain illness called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from consuming beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen -- which is not destroyed by cooking.
Felicia Nestor, a consultant to the watchdog group Public Citizen, said she also has seen NRs that support the allegations. Nestor said interviews with inspectors, together with information contained in the documents, indicate the infractions have been occurring for a year and a half.
"I talked to an inspector last week who said it's still going on," Nestor told UPI. "I've seen or heard of violations that span almost a year and a half," she said.
USDA officials, who said previously the agency had conducted an investigation and found no evidence supporting Painter's claims, said the NRs are a signal the SRM ban is being adequately enforced.
"The existence of NRs demonstrates that enforcement of (mad cow) regulations is being effectively carried out," Steven Cohen, an agency spokesman, told UPI.
Asked if the USDA presumes its inspectors catch every violation, Cohen did not answer and hung up the telephone.
Nestor said inspectors have told her they do not think all of the infractions have been caught and they are concerned some SRMs from older cows may have reached consumers.
"So people may have eaten this stuff," she said.
Although the non-compliance reports UPI viewed indicated the beef products from the older cows were condemned and did not make it into the food supply, some of the documents suggested the products were ready for distribution and could have reached consumers if they had not been caught at the last moment.
Nestor said based on what she remembers of the NRs, combined with discussions with inspectors, the SRM violations affected thousands of pounds of meat. In some cases, Nestor said, inspectors have told her a processing plant has been cited several times many months apart for SRM violations, suggesting the problem may not have been corrected in the intervening months.
Cohen said when a slaughterhouse receives an NR, "the plant is required to take immediate corrective action to prevent a repetition of the event."
This presumes the animals involved appeared healthy, or they would not have been permitted for human consumption, but this does not mean they were free of mad cow disease. In Europe, hundreds of seemingly healthy animals have tested positive for the disease.
In addition, mad cow disease has existed in the United States for several years, if not longer. The infected Washington cow came into the country from Canada in 2001 and the disease may have been circulating in U.S. herds as far back as the early 1990s -- the Texas cow that recently tested positive for the disease was born around 1992 and could have become infected at that time.
Nestor said due to inadequate USDA policies and a lack of training and instruction, some inspectors may not be catching SRM violations, while other violations might not be documented.
"So there may not be NRs for a variety of reasons and the NRs we are aware of are probably just a portion of what the inspectors saw and that's probably the tip of the iceberg of what actually occurred at plants across the country," she said.
The USDA has refused to turn over other NRs it might be holding in response to a request made by Public Citizen last December under the Freedom of Information Act. By federal law, the agency is required to respond in 30 days, but so far the request has been pending for 120 business days.
Nestor said that during a meeting with consumer groups earlier this month, Merle Pierson, USDAs acting undersecretary for food safety, said the reason for the delay in fulfilling Public Citizen's FOIA request is the agency's computer system makes it difficult to search for NRs.
Nestor said if that is true, it calls into question the USDA's public statements back in December -- when the SRM allegations first emerged -- that the SRM verification process was working.
"How could they do that when eight months later they're saying they still haven't gotten to the bottom of the evidence in their own computer system?" she asked.
Cohen said fulfilling the FOIA request "is a massive undertaking in time and resources" and has required bringing in additional staff to respond "as quickly as possible."
Painter first raised the issue with USDA officials in a letter last December. After receiving no response, Painter informed media representatives about his concerns and was subsequently interrogated twice by the USDA and charged with personal misconduct.
Painter, consumer groups and at least one Member of Congress -- Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. -- have charged the USDA's actions were intended to intimidate and retaliate against him for divulging the information.
Painter's allegations apparently have been an issue in the U.S. government's ongoing negotiations with Japan to open their borders to U.S. beef imports. The State Department recently posted a notice on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Japan stating USDA officials found no evidence to substantiate Painter's claims and had requested a criminal investigation into his actions. USDA officials subsequently said the statement was erroneous and it was removed in July three days after UPI reported its existence.
Cohen said the USDA interviewed other union officials and they said they had not been contacted by inspectors concerned the SRM regulations were not being enforced.
Nestor disputed that assertion, saying she had talked with one inspector who had been interviewed by the agency who said he never was asked that question.
"It's a falsehood," Nestor said. "It's another misrepresentation designed to call Painter's credibility into question. She added that other inspectors with whom she has spoken said they are concerned about the implications of the SRM violations.
"People are terrified to talk, but when I talk to them they recognize it as a major problem," she said. "They actually even sound kind of incredulous that it still could be going on."
Cohen said the agency "will continue to seek information relevant to these issues and reminds all personnel of their ability to directly contact the Office of Inspector General should they desire."
The OIG has launched an investigation to determine whether the SRM ban is being effectively implemented and results are due by the end of the summer.