WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Federal investigators are looking into allegations by a former U.S. Agriculture Department inspector that the agency sought to cover up cases of mad cow disease, United Press International has learned.
Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, told UPI he was questioned recently by two representatives from the USDA's Office of Inspector General who were investigating statements he made before Canada's Parliament in April.
"I told them I think there's a cover-up," said Friedlander, a 10-year veteran of the USDA who received official praise and recognition for outstanding performance during his tenure with the agency.
Mad cow is a concern to public health because humans can contract a fatal brain illness known as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from eating beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen.
Friedlander's claims include that a USDA official told him in 1991 not to say anything if he ever discovered a case of mad cow disease, and that he knew of cows that had tested positive at private laboratories but were ruled negative by the USDA.
He said he was interviewed by Keith Arnold, from the OIG's regional office in Kansas City, Mo., and William Busby, of OIG's Denver office. The officials told him Phyllis Fong, the USDA's inspector general, ordered the investigation.
"The reason they interviewed me was there was a lot of talk about my comments made in Canada and they said they were getting a lot of flak," he said. "I told them I'd take a lie detector just to prove I'm telling the truth."
Paul Feeney, OIG's deputy counsel, told UPI the agency had no comment regarding Friedlander's allegations, but he noted the OIG is conducting an audit of USDA's surveillance plan for mad cow disease -- also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE -- which includes collecting information from "any individuals who may have substantive information about BSE-testing issues."
The USDA did not return a phone call from UPI seeking comment, but agency officials, including Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, previously have denied Friedlander's accusations.
Friedlander left the USDA in 1995 after reaching an agreement with the agency concerning his complaints that his immediate supervisors were discriminating against him for his religious beliefs. Friedlander insists the agency attempted to force him out after he appeared on national television programs alleging that meat from downer cows -- those unable to stand -- was included in school lunch programs and a drug that is toxic to people was being used to increase the volume of meat in veal calves.
Among the accusations Friedlander said the OIG's office is investigating is an incident in 1991 in which he said Pat McCaskey, a USDA pathologist branch chief, told him not to say anything if he ever found a mad cow case.
Friedlander said the discussion with McCaskey followed a meeting at the department's headquarters in Washington about economic consequences if the disease was discovered in a U.S. cow.
A recent study conducted by Kansas State University researchers calculated the U.S. beef industry already has lost billions of dollars in exports due to foreign nations closing their borders in response to the mad cow case detected in Washington state in 2003 -- the first and only confirmed case in the United States.
"The next day he (McCaskey) called me up at my USDA office and said, 'If you ever find it, don't tell anybody,'" Friedlander said.
Friedlander also told the inspectors about two cows in 1997 that other USDA employees initially said looked positive for mad cow disease. He said the agents told him they were going to interview Masuo Doi and Karl Langheinrich, the USDA employees involved in those cases.
A two-year UPI investigation found the two cows were extensively tested by the USDA and the National Institutes of Health and neither agency ever detected a trace of mad cow.
Friedlander said he began collecting brains from cows with symptoms that could indicate mad cow disease on his own in 1989, although the official USDA surveillance program did not start until 1990. He said he told inspectors it was "highly suspicious when they had an official program to take brains, they never asked me for one cow brain and they knew I was taking brains on my own to test for mad cow disease."
At the time, Friedlander worked in a Pennsylvania plant that he said would have been a good place for mad cow surveillance. The plant received the most downer cows in the country -- 25 to 30 per day -- and included cows coming from multiple states ranging as far west as Texas, as far North as Maine and as far south as Florida, he said.
Friedlander said he sent the brains he collected to the USDA's laboratory in Athens, Ga., but none came back positive for mad cow. He said he was transferred from the Pennsylvania plant because he had "the highest" rate of condemning animals he deemed unsuitable for human consumption. The plant owner told the USDA he was losing $10,000 to $15,000 per day due to the condemnations, Friedlander said.
In another incident, Friedlander said Joe Oziano, a veterinarian from Veterinary Services in Michigan, informed him in 1995 that a cow brain he sent to be tested for mad cow disease at the USDA's lab in Ames, Iowa, was thrown away by lab personnel.
Oziano had taken the brain from an old bull during the summer and sent it for testing on a Friday, Friedlander said. Because it arrived after hours and nobody was working during the weekend, the unrefrigerated sample remained on the loading dock in the hot sun all weekend. By the time a lab employee opened the sample on Monday, he said, it stunk so badly the employee just threw it away. When Oziano objected, arguing that although the brain tissue was badly deteriorated, it still should have been tested for mad cow, the lab technician responded, "Do you think anybody really cares?" Friedlander said.
The USDA ramped up its BSE surveillance to more than 300,000 animals in the wake of the 2003 case and has not detected any more infected animals, but this strategy also has generated controversy.
In November 2004, a cow tested positive on two initial rapid tests, but it subsequently was ruled negative by the USDA on a different test. BSE-testing experts and consumer groups have questioned the agency's rationale for not using a third type of test -- called a Western blot -- on the cow that may have helped clear up any confusion about whether the animal was infected.
The USDA plans to scale back its BSE testing program in 2006. Its proposed mad cow testing budget for fiscal year 2006 would fund testing of only 40,000 animals.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: email@example.com