WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- A consumer group sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday accusing the agency of falsely discounting the risk of mad cow disease in the nation's beef supply in an effort to convince consumers it is safe to eat.
"In an apparent attempt to reassure the public of the adequacy of its response to the recently diagnosed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, the United States Department of Agriculture has made several false or misleading statements," Public Citizen, based in Washington, wrote in a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
The watchdog group's allegations center on the USDA's claim its BSE surveillance system can detect the disease if it is present in as few as one in a million cattle. Public Citizen said data from Europe challenge the assumptions USDA relies on to make that calculation.
The group also said the agency's newly imposed safeguards of banning downer cows from the food supply and restricting the use of advanced meat recovery machines, safeguards that were instituted after the detection of the nation's first mad cow case in December, do little to enhance safety of the U.S. beef supply.
"The USDA has been distorting the data to protect the beef industry instead of being straight with the consumers about what the risks really are," Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group and a signatory on the letter, told United Press International.
The letter, which comes just two days after a congressional committee questioned the USDA's contention the mad cow detected in Washington last December was a downer or unable to stand, details what Public Citizen contended are distortions in the agency's assertions.
"When the USDA makes its claim they can detect an infected cow if it exists 1 in a million, its just plain false because it's based on a faulty assumption," Lurie said. "They make the assumption that any risk that might exist in the U.S. cattle population is among the downer cows. That is why it's so important for them to assert the cow in Washington was a downer cow."
Evidence from Europe, however, in which BSE has been detected in cows that had no symptoms of the disease, demonstrates "there is still some risk that exists in a nondowner animal," Lurie said.
The USDA's mad cow surveillance program is based on testing downers and animals with signs of central nervous system disorders because these are the most likely to be infected. The agency currently does not test any healthy animals.
USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison called Public Citizen's allegations "completely wrong" and said the agency's surveillance program is based on international standards laid out by the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris.
Harrison noted the agency had doubled the number of animals it will test this year from the total it screened last year, going from 20,000 to 40,000. The agency is considering increasing that level in the future and may abide by the recommendations of an international panel the USDA commissioned, which advised testing some healthy animals to get an idea of the prevalence of mad cow disease in U.S. herds, she added.
The panel felt this step was necessary, it said in its Feb. 4 report, because it was "probable" there were more mad cows present in the United States.
The beef industry dismissed the issues raised by Public Citizen.
"This is an activist group on a campaign to discredit our industry and create unnecessary consumer concern," Dan Murphy, spokesman for the American Meat Institute, a trade group in Arlington, Va., told UPI.
Public Citizen also objected to the USDA's claim its ban on downers going into the food supply would substantially reduce the risk to humans. The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain disorder, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating meat infected with the mad cow pathogen.
"If you assume our testing results and rates would be similar to what they got in Europe, only 12 percent of total risk would be among the downer animals and that's all that would be eliminated by taking downers out of the food supply," Lurie said. "It's very wrong to imply that by taking out the downer animals you've significantly increased the safety of the food supply in this country."
Lurie said he agreed with recommendations put forth by the international panel to continue to test downer animals but also screen a large number of older, non-downer animals. If there are positives, then it would be advisable to increase testing of healthy animals, he said.
Public Citizen also said the USDA's new restrictions on advanced meat recovery systems do not go far enough. AMR machines can introduce bits of spinal cord -- which scientists consider one of the most infectious parts of an animal if it is infected with BSE -- into meat.
The USDA issued restrictions in January barring the use of AMR on cows older than 30 months but has not banned the use of AMRs or the sale of meat products that derive from it, Lurie said.
Meat processed in this manner cannot be labeled as meat but can be incorporated in beef stock, beef extract and beef flavoring, he said. This is a concern because BSE positive cows under 30 months of age have been found in Europe and Japan.
Harrison said the agency has a test and hold policy for AMR processed meat.
"It has to be tested for nervous tissue (such as spinal cord bits) before it goes into the food supply," she said.