WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- A congressional committee sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday that said new information brings into question the agency's contention the cow that tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington in December was a downer animal.
The USDA has maintained the animal that tested positive for mad cow, otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, was targeted for screening because it was a downer, meaning it was unable to stand. The inability to stand can be a sign of mad cow disease.
The cow that tested positive was slaughtered at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash.
The House Committee on Government Reform said in its letter, sent to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the co-manager of the plant, Thomas Ellestad, and two other eyewitnesses contend they saw the animal stand and walk on the day of slaughter.
"If this information is true, it could have serious implications for both the adequacy of the national BSE surveillance system and the credibility of the USDA," said the letter, which was jointly issued by the committee chairman, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and the ranking minority member, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
The USDA mad cow surveillance program is based on downer cows or those with signs of a brain disorder. If the animal in question was not a downer, it raises concerns as to how many other seemingly healthy but infected animals were approved for human consumption, Michael Hansen, a microbiologist with the watchdog group Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., told United Press International.
Hansen said in Europe statistics show 60 percent of cows testing positive actually do not have any symptoms of the disease.
The concern is that humans can contract a fatal brain illness known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat infected with the mad cow pathogen.
The committee said it could hold hearings on the discrepancy between the USDA's position and those of the eyewitnesses.
"Certainly a hearing is within the realm of possibility, but we need to wait and see what the secretary has to say in response," Davis spokesman David Marin told UPI.
Marin said the committee had been investigating the issue for "the last several weeks" and already had brought some of its findings to the attention of USDA's congressional affairs staff.
"This all boils down to an issue of public awareness and public trust," Marin said. "If indeed it's true that the only BSE-infected cow in the country was not a downer, then we need to revisit the premise of our surveillance system and re-examine statements Agriculture Department officials made to the public."
The USDA repeatedly has denied allegations from David Louthan, the plant employee who slaughtered the animals, that the cow in question was not a downer. The agency's position is the animal was non-ambulatory because of an injury to its pelvis that it sustained while giving birth shortly before it was slaughtered Dec. 9.
Marin said the committee just wanted to determine what happened.
"We have no reason to believe anything was intentionally done or not done," Marin said. "We're just trying to get at what happened here and why."
A source close to the committee, who requested anonymity, told UPI, "No hearings are planned as of yet, but this is something that both the chair and the ranking minority are signed onto, so it's definitely a serious concern for the committee."
USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said Veneman was aware of the questions raised about the status of the cow.
"It's something the secretary will take a look at and respond accordingly to the committee members," Harrison told UPI. "We do believe the records we have show the animal was non-ambulatory, we tested the animal, the animal was positive and the rest is history."
The USDA's Office of Inspector General opened an investigation into the downer question several weeks ago.
Harrison said the IG, an independent investigative arm of the department, had provided no indication when its investigation might be completed. She added it is not uncommon for the IG to launch an investigation in a high-profile case such as this one.
The committee's 11-page letter said USDA continued to insist the animal was a downer long after it had been made aware that Ellestad disputed the contention.
Ellestad faxed a handwritten letter to USDA's Boulder District office on Jan. 6 disputing the USDA's assertion the cow was tested because it was a downer. Seven days later, on Jan. 13, USDA officials reiterated during a briefing for the committee's staff that the cow had not walked since giving birth.
The letter noted, "USDA has not released that information (about Ellestad's fax) to Congress or the public."
Ellestad recounted in an 18-page affidavit given to the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower group in Washington, he had instituted a policy at Vern's Moses in February of 2003 that the plant would not accept nonambulatory cattle. The policy required those delivering cattle to the facility sign a document that stated they would not deliver cattle unable to walk onto the hauling trailer.
Randy Hull, the hauler who took the cow to slaughter, signed the document and said in a Jan. 21 declaration to GAP the animal walked onto the hauling trailer the day of the slaughter.
Ellestad's affidavit also detailed a conversation he had on Jan. 19 with an unnamed Washington State official involved in USDA's BSE surveillance program, who said the cow in question had gone through a milking shed for three or four days after giving birth on Nov. 29, 2003.
Ellestad said that means the cow was walking, which disputes USDA's contention the animal was injured during the birthing process.
"There would be no other way for her to go through the milking shed," Ellestad said.
Louthan said in testimony before the Washington State Legislature on Feb. 3 that the animal "was a walking cow."
The inspection report on the animal showed a USDA veterinarian indicated the animal was a downer. Ellestad said that is because during inspection the veterinarian recorded the tag numbers of which cows were lying down, and after he left all the cattle stood up.
Ellestad's affidavit also said the USDA routinely and knowingly tested brains from healthy cows from his facility, a statement that conflicts with the department's claim it only targets downer animals or those with signs of a central nervous system problem.
Ellestad said in June of 2003 USDA offered his company $10 for every brain sample from a downer animal it could deliver. Ellestad declined because his policy on downers had gone into effect and he no longer processed those animals.
The USDA ultimately changed its offer to omit any reference in its purchase order form requiring the brains originate from downer animals, the affidavit said. Ellestad agreed to participate in the brain sampling program in October of 2003 and provided the committee with a copy of the USDA purchase order, which stated, "For each animal from which a BSE surveillance sample is collected, Vern's will be reimbursed $10."
Ellestad said the slaughterhouse, not USDA inspectors, chose the animals from which to collect brain samples. Although some came from animals injured in transit, many were healthy and showed no symptoms indicative of mad cow, he said.
A review of the veterinary medical officer's records would confirm samples came from animals that "exhibited absolutely no outward appearance of BSE or central nervous system symptoms," he said in his affidavit. The USDA was aware of this and agreed to it, he added.
Ellestad also provided documentation showing the USDA's Salem, Ore., office halted the brain testing program at Vern's Moses on Dec. 29, 2003, six days after the agency announced the country's first case of mad cow had come from the plant. The initial purchase order had called for Vern's Moses to continue to provide brain samples through September.
The USDA's mad cow surveillance program has been in question since the mad cow was first reported Dec. 23, 2003. The agency tests so few animals -- only about 20,000 out of the 35 million slaughtered each year -- some critics have said it is unlikely it could detect mad cow even if it was prevalent in the U.S. herd.
The USDA for six months refused to release its testing records for the past two years, which had been requested by UPI under the Freedom of Information Act. When the records finally were released they revealed, as UPI reported in January, the agency had not tested any animals in Washington state for the first seven months of 2003.
During the two-year period from October, 2001, through July, 2003, the records showed the USDA had tested animals from fewer than 100 of the 700 plants known to slaughter cattle. In addition, it tested none or only a handful from many plants that process sick and older dairy cattle, which are considered the highest-risk animals for mad cow infection.