WASHINGTON, May 11 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued an order instructing its inspectors in Texas, where federal mad cow disease testing policies recently were violated, not to talk about the cattle disorder with outside parties, United Press International has learned.
The order, sent May 6 by e-mail from the USDA's Dallas district office, was issued in the wake of the April 27 case at Lone Star Beef in San Angelo, in which a cow displaying signs of a brain disorder was not tested for mad cow disease despite a federal policy to screen all such animals.
The deadly illness also is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Both the USDA and its Inspector General -- amid allegations that an offsite supervisor overruled the opinion of the inspectors onsite and made the final decision not to test the animal -- have opened up investigations to determine why agency policy was violated.
The order, which was obtained by UPI, was issued by Ijaz Qazi, circuit supervisor for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service's Dallas district, which covers the entire state. It reads: "All BSE inquiries MUST be directed to Congressional Public Affairs Phone 202-720-9113 attention Rob Larew OR Steve Khon. This is an urgent message. Any question contact me. Ijaz Qazi."
Although the language might sound innocuous, experienced inspectors familiar with USDA parlance have taken to referring to the notice as a "gag order."
The National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals -- the national inspectors union -- considers the order a violation of inspectors' free speech rights and is considering legal action against the USDA for breaching the labor agreement they have with the agency.
Inspectors alleged the order also suggests the agency is concerned about its personnel leaking damaging information about either the Texas case or the USDA's overall mad cow disease surveillance program, which has come under fire since the discovery of an infected cow in Washington state last December.
"Anytime the government suppresses an individual's freedom of speech, that's unconstitutional," Gary Dahl, president of Local 925, the Colorado inspectors union, told UPI.
Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council, said the USDA has sent out notices in the past stating inspectors cannot talk to reporters.
"It's an intimidation thing," Painter told UPI. Inspectors have the right to talk to anybody about any subject, as long as they clarify they are not speaking on behalf of the USDA and they are not doing it on government time, he said.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said he was not familiar with the notice from the Dallas office. He said he would look into it, but did not respond by UPI's publication time. In general, Cohen said, "There's an expectation any statement on behalf of the agency would come from the office of communications (in Washington.)"
Asked if employees could speak freely as long as they clarified that their views did not reflect those of the agency, Cohen said, "We'd rather that agency policy be communicated by those in a position to speak for the agency."
Qazi told UPI the notice was not issued in conjunction with the Texas case and it was routine agency practice that outside inquiries be referred to the Washington office. He said inspectors are free to talk to outside parties, including reporters, and he did not consider the e-mail a violation of the labor agreement with the inspectors.
Painter said the USDA's efforts to keep its employees from talking about mad cow would be better spent "with issues like protecting the consuming public instead of trying to hide things." He added he would "just about bet his last nickel" agency management was attempting to suppress information about the Texas case.
"To keep federal employees from reporting government waste, misuse of appropriations -- those types of things -- that's not a good thing either," Dahl said. "If there is something wrong, let's get it out in the open -- let's get it fixed. We're working for the public, the American consumers. I think they have the right to know this," he said.
"And believe me there's so many indicators saying that the USDA's mad cow testing program is broken," Dahl added.
At least one member of Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agrees.
Harkin, a long-time critic of the USDA, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Monday, saying the Texas incident "calls into question the effectiveness and reliability of USDA's current and proposed surveillance system."
The USDA has proposed testing more than 200,000 cows -- or 10 times its current rate -- in an expanded program scheduled to begin June 1. Harkin wrote in the five-page letter, however, that given the realities of the cattle industry, it is "quite doubtful" the USDA will be able to test that many cows, particularly because it had difficulty finding 20,000 last year.
"We simply cannot tolerate a BSE testing system that fails to give valid answers to critical questions for U.S. consumers and foreign customers," Harkin said in the letter, which sharply criticizes the agency's failure to address explicitly how its new surveillance program will be implemented.
"We look forward to receiving (Harkin's) letter and having the opportunity to review it and respond to him," USDA spokesman Ed Loyd told UPI. "USDA has acknowledged there was a failure in not testing that cow in Texas for BSE, so we are all working to ensure that does not occur again."
Jim Rogers, a spokesman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the agency's mad cow surveillance program, told UPI the agency has tested about 15,500 animals since fiscal year 2004 began, on Oct. 1, 2003. However, the agency has refused to identify the states and facilities from which the cows originated. Rogers said UPI would have to seek that information through the Freedom of Information Act.
The question is central to the USDA's implementation of its expanded surveillance program. Downer cows -- those unable to stand or walk -- made up the bulk of the animals the agency tested for mad cow in previous years, but these were banned from being slaughtered for human consumption in December. This means the agency inspectors no longer can obtain brain samples from these cows at slaughterhouses as they could in the past.
Furthermore, the USDA has not provided any evidence it has worked out agreements with rendering facilities or ranchers, where downers and dead cows are now most likely to be found, to obtain the extra animals for testing.
Loyd said the agency is "working very hard to get animals on the farm that would never show up in a processing facility," and he was "not aware of any issues" that would delay the launch of the new program.
However, he was unable to provide the names or locations of the rendering facilities where the agency will be obtaining cow brains for BSE testing. He said he would look into it but did not return two follow-up phone calls from UPI before publication.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org