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CU calls on USDA to protect consumers, cattle industry

June 21, 2005

Consumers Union calls on USDA to go the extra mile to protect consumers, cattle industry

WASHINGTON, DC –Consumers Union is formally asking Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test all cattle over 20 months of age at slaughter and adopt the most accurate and sensitive “Western blot” test as part of its testing protocol in suspected mad cow cases.
In a letter to Secretary Johanns issued on Monday, Consumers Union specifically asks that USDA:

  • require that all cattle over 20 months of age be tested at slaughter for mad cow disease;
  • utilize the most accurate and sensitive Western blot test along with the IHC test when confirming a suspect case; and
  • make clear to the public that a positive result on either test indicates that the suspect cow is positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The USDA announced last week that a cow born and bred in the United States tested positive for mad cow disease. The animal was originally suspected of having the disease last November, but USDA failed to test the animal using the more sensitive Western blot test until earlier this month. In a previous case of an infected Canadian-born animal found in Washington state, USDA used the Western blot test in addition to other tests to confirm that the animal was infected.
A copy of the letter follows:

June 20, 2005
Hon. Mike Johanns
Secretary of Agriculture
US Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Johanns:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June 10 announcement that a cow that tested negative for mad cow disease last November using the immunohistochemistry (IHC) test has now tested positive using a form of the Western blot test, has eroded consumers’ confidence in USDA’s ability to keep beef safe. Consumer confidence was already shaken by repeated instances of mismanagement, confusion as to facts, and botched procedures in relation to USDA handling of cows suspected of infection with BSE.
To ensure the highest level of safety protection for American consumers, we urge you to immediately require that all cattle over 20 months of age be tested at slaughter for mad cow disease; you adopt the most accurate and sensitive version of the Western blot test as part of your standard protocol along with the IHC test when confirming a suspect case; and make clear to the public that a positive result on either test indicates that the suspect cow is positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
We also urge you to lift the veil of secrecy which currently surrounds the USDA testing program. USDA so far has refused to disclose any details of its program, revealing neither the ages of cattle tested, the states they came from, whether they were downers, or any other identifying information. We urge you to disclose these details.
The government’s record in this area is troubling. The first U.S. mad cow case, identified in December 2003, was initially identified as a “downer” or non-ambulatory cow, and then in response to conflicting accounts by slaughterhouse employees, was identified by the USDA as ambulatory. And in April 2004, a cow that was condemned at the Lone Star Beef facility in San Angelo, Texas, because it displayed signs of a central nervous system disorder, was not tested for mad cow disease, despite USDA policy requiring such testing.
To reassure American consumers and our export partners that USDA is committed to doing everything possible to determine the incidence of mad cow disease in the United States, and to prevent cases from entering either the food or feed supply, we urge you to require testing of all cattle over the age of 20 months at slaughter. This would bring U.S. testing practices in line with the views of regulators in Japan, until last year one of the largest buyers of U.S. beef. The approximately 380,000 cows tested in the current USDA testing program is still only about 1 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the United States every year.
Additionally, we urge USDA to adopt the most accurate and sensitive Western blot test, utilizing the sodium phosphotungstinic acid (NaPTA) precipitation step, when seeking to confirm a suspect cow and bring USDA procedures in line with testing procedures in Europe and Japan. Recent studies in Belgium and Japan have shown that the IHC test misses some cases of mad cow disease. A letter in Veterinary Pathology, from one of the world’s leading authorities on mad cow disease testing, pointed out that the Western blot, when accompanied by the NaPTA precipitation step, is up to a thousand-fold more sensitive than IHC in detecting the mad cow disease infectious agent.
In fact, USDA used both the IHC and Western blot tests to confirm its first case of mad cow disease in December 2003. It is thus difficult to understand why USDA did not again use the Western blot test along with IHC on this latest cow. In the seven months since this cow was first identified as suspect, valuable time has been lost in terms of identifying any other possible cases that might have been associated with it, either as herdmates or previous birth cohorts (if it was a breeder cow).
The USDA should operate out of an “abundance of caution” in its efforts to keep the U.S. food supply safe from BSE. The experience of the United Kingdom, where millions of cattle had to be destroyed, beef exports were blocked for many years, and 147 people have died, painfully demonstrates the consequences of insufficient action to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.
The trust of American consumers, and of foreign markets, in the safety of American beef rests on having confidence that USDA is utilizing the best science available, comparable to that used in other scientifically advanced countries, and is operating in an open and transparent manner.
Thank you for you consideration.
Jean Halloran, Director
Food Policy Initiatives
Michael K. Hansen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Associate
Cc: Dr. John R. Clifford
For more information contact:
Michael Hansen 914-378-2452 (w) 917-774-3801 (c)
Jean Halloran 914-378-2457