Letters Urge Congress to Investigate Failure to Test Suspicious Cow
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May 5, 2004
On Friday, April 30, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it had discovered a cow demonstrating central nervous system problems at a Texas meatpacking plant, and that it was going to test that cow for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). On Monday, May 3, USDA announced that the cow had not been tested for BSE, and instead was sent to a rendering plant. Given the heightened concern about the possible spread of mad cow disease, we find USDA’s failure to test this highly suspect animal unacceptable.
Attached is a letter that we sent to Secretary Ann Veneman asking that she investigate this incident to determine why this cow was not tested for BSE. We ask her for details about what USDA has done to ensure that none of the animals that may have shared feed with this cow are infected with BSE, and what USDA has done to work with the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that the potentially tainted rendered product is tested for BSE.
Today we have learned that the failure to test this animal was not a bureaucratic mix up, but an active decision by USDA personnel not to test this animal. Attached is an article from the online publication Meatingplace.com in which it is alleged that USDA inspectors in the plant where this animal was slaughtered were overruled by their supervisors when they sought to have this animal tested for BSE.
Given this latest news, we believe that Congress should investigate this incident. It also makes it clearer than ever that USDA’s response to mad cow has been inadequate. Therefore, we once again urge you to take up and pass legislation that would require the testing of all cattle over the age of 20 months at slaughter. In addition, we urge you to support establishment of a mandatory, national animal identification program. These measures are absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the human food supply, as well as to ensure that Americans remain confident in the safety of our nation’s beef supply.
We look forward to continuing to work with you on this important food safety issue.
Adam J. Goldberg
May 4, 2004
The Honorable Ann M. Veneman
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Veneman:
I am writing to express our concern regarding USDA’s failure to perform the required testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on a cow demonstrating central nervous system problems at a Texas meatpacking plant. Given the current heightened national unease over the potential spread of mad cow disease, this failure points to glaring weaknesses in USDA’s surveillance program. We would like to know the answers to a number of critical questions, discussed below.
As you know, Consumers Union has been vocal in calling for a systematized, mandatory, nationwide testing program for mad cow disease since a BSE-positive cow was discovered in Washington State in December 2003. In our view, this program must include testing at slaughter all cattle over the age of 20 months. We believe this is absolutely necessary to ensure that BSE-positive cattle are kept out of the human food supply to prevent the spread of the human form of mad cow disease.
However, news that a USDA veterinarian noticed a cow demonstrating signs of neurological problems at the Lone Star Beef plant in San Angelo, Texas, and had ordered that the cow be excluded from the human food supply while it was being tested for BSE, was an encouraging sign. USDA spokesman Ed Loyd was reported by the Associated Press to have said, “We are testing thousands of animals each year as part of our aggressive surveillance system to make sure we have aggressive measures in pace [sic] to maintain the safety of our food supply.”
Now, of course, we have found out that the cow was not tested for BSE, but was instead sent to a rendering plant. Obviously, this is far from the “aggressive measures” we would have expected following Mr. Loyd’s statement. It is unacceptable that a USDA veterinarian could observe a cow “stagger and fall” at a meatpacking plant, and then not have that cow tested for BSE. The fact that the cow was apparently taken out of the human food supply does not mitigate the fact that USDA has failed to do what it publicly promised to do, nor do these actions, ultimately, safeguard the food supply.
Given the serious nature of this failure, as you investigate this incident to determine why this cow was not tested for BSE, we think it is important for public confidence to determine the following:
1. The reasons for this cow being taken from the line, and who made the determination that it should be excluded from the human food supply pending testing;
2. How the determination was made that a public announcement should be made regarding the need to test this particular cow for BSE;
3. How this cow was then sent to a rendering facility without being tested for BSE;
4. What USDA has done to trace this cow back to its herd to investigate whether any of the cattle with which it shared feed are infected with BSE; and
5. What USDA has done to inform the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about this situation, any request it has made to FDA to test for mad cow in the rendered product, and to ensure that the rendering facility disposes of the product that is potentially infected with BSE so that the disease cannot be inadvertently spread.
Public confidence in the nation’s beef supply has suffered since the December discovery of a BSE-positive cow that was allowed by USDA to be sent into the food supply before test results were known. Incidents like this most recent failure to test a suspect cow as promised can only diminish confidence and increase distrust of USDA’s commitment to protect the food supply. In the least, it raises questions about the competency of USDA personnel and the procedures the department has put in place to find and stop mad cow disease. At worst, it raises questions about what USDA knew about this cow that now may never be shared with the public. In either case, this does not reflect well on USDA.
Madam Secretary, we know you share our concern about the safety of the nation’s beef supply, and we know that you are concerned about the potential spread of mad cow and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. However, simply put, USDA needs to do much more, not only to check the spread of these diseases, but to instill public confidence in your efforts. A quick and thorough investigation of this Texas case, and the announcement of tighter safeguards to ensure that similar incidents don’t happen in the future, are essential for that confidence.
We look forward to continuing to work with you on this issue.
Adam J. Goldberg
by Daniel Yovich on 5/5/04 for Meatingplace.com
It was a trio of Agriculture Department staff — two veterinarians and one technician — who were supposed to follow agency protocol by testing what they determined was an older cow that likely had a central nervous system disorder when it arrived April 27 at the Lone Star Beef plant in San Angelo, Texas.
One government source and another within the industry, both of whom say they have firsthand knowledge of events that day, said the final call on not to test the animal was made by an APHIS supervisor in Austin, Texas, after an APHIS technician at the plant advised her supervisor she was preparing to take a tissue sample from the culled animal for BSE testing. Both sources spoke to Meatingplace.com on condition of anonymity, and USDA officials did not return telephone calls Tuesday seeking comment and confirmation of the allegations.
What USDA has confirmed is that the agency’s standard operating procedures call for animals condemned due to a possible CNS disorder be kept until APHIS officials can collect samples for testing. That clearly was done in this case. The animal sat for more than 90 minutes and less than two hours after it was condemned, stunned and killed before the APHIS tech told Lone Star Beef management to dispose of the animal “in a routine manner.”
As a condemned cow, there was never any chance that the meat from the animal would enter the food chain. What is less clear is what went wrong at USDA and why.
USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said the agency was conducting an investigation into the issue — attempting to establish a timeline and chronology of who was involved and who made the decisions last week in San Angelo.
What is clear, in the mind of the two sources who spoke to Meatingplace.com, is that all three of USDA’s key decision makers on the ground at the San Angelo plant were overruled by a staffer with more authority in Austin.
“Everybody expected a test, and then the word came that there wasn’t going to be any test,” one source said. “I’m not sure why that decision was made, and I’m not going to speculate about the reasons for it. But I think what USDA is going to find is that the final decision was made up the food chain, and I think a lot of people will be interested in why that decision was made.”
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