WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- U.S. Department of Agriculture documents uncovered by United Press International provide new evidence the cow that tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington last December was healthy and not a "downer," as the agency has maintained.
The USDA has made such a claim since it announced the mad cow case on Dec. 23. Because the animal was a downer, officials said -- meaning it was unable to stand -- its detection is an indication the agency's national surveillance program for the disease is effective at detecting infected animals.
That position has come under fire recently, however. Last week, the House Committee on Government Reform sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, asking her to respond to the accounts of three eyewitnesses present at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., where the cow was slaughtered Dec. 9, and other documents it uncovered indicating the cow was not a downer.
UPI has uncovered additional documents that provide further support the cow was walking at the time of inspection.
The documents indicate that a test for illegal antibiotics and a temperature reading are required to be performed on all downer animals. However, neither test was conducted, suggesting the animal was not a downer.
The adequacy of USDA's mad cow surveillance program hinges on resolving the downer dispute. The agency's program tests only downer cattle and those showing signs of central nervous system problems because these are the most likely to be infected. However, European inspectors have found hundreds of infected cows that did not display any symptoms.
If the Washington cow was not a downer, it raises the question of how many other, seemingly healthy animals infected with mad cow went undetected and were approved for human consumption. Humans can contract a fatal brain disorder, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from eating meat tainted with the mad-cow pathogen.
According to documents detailing the inspection of the cow in Washington the day it was slaughtered, there is no indication the USDA veterinary medical officer who listed the animal as a downer conducted a required test for the presence of illegal antibiotics.
This test, called either a STOP (slow test on premises) or FAST (fast antimicrobial screening test), should be conducted on all downers, according to a 2001 directive issued by the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Services that was obtained by UPI.
The failure to conduct a STOP or FAST test indicates the veterinarian either did not follow proper procedures or the animal was not a downer, former USDA veterinarians told UPI.
"That's neglect of duty" if the animal was indeed a downer, said Lester Friedlander, who worked for the agency from 1985 to 1995. "All downers have to have a STOP test done on them," he said.
The 2001 directive advises USDA veterinarians that the antibiotic tests are warranted on all downers, defined as "any animal that was non-ambulatory," and they should "retain the tested carcasses until the test results are received."
The Washington animal, however, does not appear to have been tested and its carcass was not retained.
"They never did any lab work on it," Dave Louthan, the Vern's Moses employee who killed the animal and was present when the veterinarian inspected it, told UPI.
"The carcass was never retained," added Louthan, who has maintained the cow was not a downer and testified to that effect before the Washington state legislature earlier this month.
The cow was slaughtered on Dec. 9, a Friday, at about 2:30 p.m. The antibiotic tests can take anywhere from six to 24 hours to obtain the results, meaning the veterinarian would have needed to return the next day, Saturday, to interpret the tests and either pass or reject the carcass for human consumption.
Louthan, who worked that Saturday, said neither the veterinarian nor the meat inspector was present.
He said the carcass was loaded on a truck on Saturday morning and shipped out Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, it had been turned into hamburger meat and was on its way to the store, he said.
Tom D'Amura, a former USDA veterinarian who now works as an independent support veterinarian for Sagebrush Veterinary Services in Arlington, Texas, said he found it curious that a STOP test was not done.
The inspection sheet lists pelvic injuries for the cow, meaning it was at least suspect, D'Amura told UPI. On top of that, it was a dairy cow, in which antibiotic use is common, he said.
"Alarm bells should have gone off with the veterinarian; the cow would have been a prime candidate for a STOP test," he said. "She should have been retained for STOP until the results returned no matter the (mad cow) business."
Steven Cohen, a spokesman for USDA's FSIS, declined a request by UPI to speak to the inspecting veterinarian, whom Louthan identified as Rodney Thompson.
"There is an active investigation ongoing," Cohen said, referring to an inquiry launched by the USDA's Office of Inspector General into allegations made by Louthan that the animal was not a downer.
"I think at this time (the veterinarian) will stand by his exam and the notes he made that day," Cohen said.
Asked if a STOP or FAST test was done, Cohen replied, "I don't know ... I don't see anything" on the inspection sheet.
Cohen said he would investigate the question. Later, he sent an e-mail saying: "The question you raise is part of the investigation by the Office of Inspector General into events at Vern's Moses Lake Meats. Due to the OIG investigation, it would be improper for FSIS to comment at this time."
OIG would not confirm whether it was investigating whether a STOP or FAST test had been conducted on the animal.
The inspection records also show no body temperature was taken of the animal, although the temperature was taken of other downer animals inspected at the same time.
"It's not a requirement to get a temperature," Cohen said.
This seems to contradict a training course FSIS gives to its new meat inspectors to assist them in conducting inspection of live animals. The course document obtained by UPI, advises inspectors: "You must take the temperature of all downers."
According to the document, a temperature reading is important because it can be a reason to condemn an animal. Cows with temperatures exceeding 105 degrees Fahrenheit should not be allowed for human consumption, it states.
The veterinarian who observed the cow wrote on the inspection sheet that he was "unable to get temp."
Asked what this meant, Cohen said: "He indicated it was because of how the animal was lying down (with its rear against the trailer) and he didn't feel it was necessary to move the animal."
This contention was disputed by Louthan, who said the cow was not lying down. "The cow was a walker," Louthan said.
Friedlander and D'Amura said even if the cow was down, this is not an adequate excuse for not getting a body temperature.
The FSIS training course supports the position of the former veterinarians. "It is the responsibility of the plant to provide adequate, competent employees to move ... animals," the course advises inspectors.
"If the plant has not met one or more of its responsibilities, you must take action," it continues, saying this can include "withholding inspection of all animal pens because the plant has failed to provide an employee to move and restrain the animals."
Failure to obtain the temperature of a downer "would be neglected duty," said Friedlander, who trained veterinarians in the procedures of conducting inspections.
When he worked at Taylor Packing in Wyalusing, Pa., in the early 1990s, he noted, it was the biggest downer plant in the country at the time.
"I've literally seen thousands of downed cows and not once did I ever say I couldn't get a temperature," he said. Friedlander added he never would pass a downer for slaughter without getting a temperature reading.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org