USDA's own audit slams its mad cow plan

By STEVE MITCHELL, United Press International  |  July 13, 2004 at 7:39 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's mad cow disease surveillance plan has numerous problems that may have reduced the chances of detecting the deadly disease among U.S. herds, according to a draft report from the agency's inspector general.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who made the IG report available on his Web site, sent a letter Tuesday to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman noting the House Government Reform Committee -- on which Waxman serves -- and a separate IG investigation not yet made available to the public, found additional evidence contradicting claims of USDA officials regarding potential U.S. cases of mad cow disease.

The new evidence, contrary to what USDA has claimed, suggests the mad cow discovered in Washington state last December was not a downer, or an animal unable to stand.

The Washington cow has been the only confirmed case of mad cow disease in the United States. If the cow was walking, it could have significant ramifications for the USDA's mad cow testing program, which primarily is focused on downer animals.

"The Inspector General's finding and the additional evidence obtained by the committee have major implications," Waxman, the ranking Democrat, wrote in the letter. "They call into question the credibility of the department's public statements and the adequacy of the department's past and ongoing response to mad cow disease."

The IG reports and Waxman's letter come the day before Veneman is scheduled to testify before a joint hearing of the reform committee and the House Agriculture Committee on the agency's screening program for mad cow disease, otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.

The IG audit of the mad cow surveillance plan details a slew of problems, including failure to test the riskiest animals, confusion among inspectors in the field due to inadequate training, and "an almost complete absence of available documentation" supporting the surveillance plan from 1990 through 2003.

The report concludes: "The problems identified during our review, if not corrected, may negatively impact the effectiveness of USDA's overall BSE surveillance program, impair its ability to perform risk assessments and program evaluations, and reduce the credibility of any assertion regarding the prevalence of BSE in the United States."

USDA officials sought to downplay both IG reports during a news briefing Tuesday.

"First of all, this (report) is about our surveillance program," said Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, who noted it was "unusual" for an IG report to be released in draft form without first getting comment from the federal agency in question.

"Nothing in the report would suggest there has been any change or anything that would compromise our primary concern, which is public health," DeHaven added.

He said public safety was ensured by the removal of the most infectious parts of cows, including the brains and spinal cords. However, USDA does not require the brain and spinal cords to be removed from animals under 30 months of age.

The concern is humans can contract a fatal, incurable brain illness from eating meat infected with the mad cow pathogen.

DeHaven said the USDA has corrected some of the problems raised in the report and is working with the IG to correct others.

Consumer groups said they were satisfied by the report because it supports criticisms they have been raising for years.

"The report vindicates everything we've been saying for a while," said Dr. Peter Lurie, a physician and deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group in Washington.

Lurie, who is scheduled to testify at the congressional hearing, told UPI: "It's a devastating report made all the more forceful for having originated within the Department of Agriculture itself. The report shows a program in substantial disarray from design phase to data collection phase to data analysis phase. There's very little of this program that escapes without criticism."

Among the problems identified by IG report is the USDA's testing of only 162 of 680 cattle with signs of a brain disorder condemned at slaughter over the past two years. These animals are considered the most likely to test positive for mad cow disease and the USDA has said its policy is to test all such cows.

The USDA also has not tested animals that are rabies negative. Rabies symptoms can be similar to mad cow symptoms but the IG noted some cows testing negative for rabies at state laboratories have not been tested by the USDA for mad cow because there is no mechanism in place for collection of the samples.

Other high-risk animals that may have escaped surveillance are those that die on farms. The IG audit said the USDA does not have a program in place for testing such cows and noted screening such animals is "important because the high-risk animals that die on the farm comprise the largest component of the targeted high-risk population and the most difficult to identify, obtain and test."

Waxman said the IG investigation into the Washington mad cow case cited "three new eyewitnesses -- the two owners of the dairy farm that sold the cow, along with a worker there -- who saw the cow walk on the morning of slaughter." That brings the total number of witnesses who say they saw the cow walk to six.

The only witness who has said the cow was a downer is Rodney Thompson, the USDA veterinarian who inspected the animal before it was slaughtered.

Waxman said, however, Thompson told the Government Reform Committee staff it was a "distinct possibility" the cow stood up after the inspection, as one witness has said.

In addition, the committee obtained e-mail messages between USDA personnel that raised doubts about whether the cow was a downer.

One e-mail stated: "The cow arrived on a load with downer cattle on it so it was included in the sample collection. If she had arrived by herself it is very likely that she would not have been tested." Another e-mail said: "The term downer was used loosely in her case."

The IG also obtained evidence the Washington slaughterhouse where the infected cow was detected routinely sent in samples from walking cows for testing for brain disease, Waxman wrote. This was a departure from the USDA's stated policy at the time of testing only high-risk animals, but "at least three regional USDA officials knew" about the practice as well as "the staff of a senior USDA official," the congressman stated in his letter.

Barbara Masters, acting administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, continued to insist the cow in Washington was a downer. Asked by a reporter for her reasoning, Masters said, "The FSIS vet (Thompson) made the determination that this was a downer animal" and the IG determined there had been no falsification of official documents.

The USDA is sampling 20,000 healthy animals as part of its expanded surveillance plan, which began June 1, but the IG audit noted this "has little, if any, statistical significance and may inadvertently create a false impression of the actual BSE incidence rate in these animals."

In addition, the IG report said USDA officials informed IG officials the purpose is not to increase surveillance for the disease but rather "to deter producers who might send potentially infected cattle into the normal slaughter process."

The IG's audit of the mad cow program also faulted the agency's assessment that it could detect the disease if there were only five cases among the 446,000 high-risk animals, such as downers, dead and those with signs of brain disorders. The USDA assumed all the cases would be among the high-risk animals, but hundreds of cases have been detected in Europe in animals that appeared healthy.

Extrapolating from the agency's own data, the IG calculated if there are five cases among the high-risk animals, there could be as many as 62 to 781 additional cases in normal adult cattle.

Keith Collins, USDA's chief economist, said the agency's detection assessment could change.

"We are going to look at alternative approaches to that and see if we can provide a fuller context to the testing program," he said.


Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail

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