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USDA failing at every turn on mad cow disease

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Adam Goldberg, (202) 462-6262

Opening Border To Canadian Beef, Inadequate Testing Program,
Other Failures Put Human Food Supply At Risk

Washington, DC – Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst in the Washington office of Consumers Union, the independent, non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, said the following today about the failure of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adequately protect public health from the threat of mad cow disease:
“Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman rightfully received high marks for her initial reaction to the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in December 2003. Unfortunately, it has been all down hill since then. Time after time, USDA has failed to do what is necessary to protect human health from the spread of this deadly brain wasting disease.
“Instead of reopening the border to Canadian ground beef and beef-on-the-bone with backdoor waivers, USDA should be working with the Canadian and Mexican governments to ensure that we have a North American-wide, comprehensive testing and surveillance program that includes a mandatory animal identification system to enable the tracing of any animal found to be infected. Right now, we do not have any assurance that North American beef is being adequately tested to ensure that no infected animals make it into the human food supply. Therefore, we believe that the ban on importation of all Canadian beef should remain in place until surveillance on both sides of the border is increased dramatically.
“Any testing program must be mandatory and should include testing of all cattle over the age of 20 months at slaughter, which is the lower limit of detection for the tests on the market today. As tests become more sensitive, the age at which animals are tested should be lowered. Unfortunately, USDA plans to test only about 200,000 cattle, which is fewer than one percent of the cattle slaughtered in the United States each year, concentrating on the relatively small so-called high risk population – while ignoring millions upon millions of cows that could be infected. This is just plain wrong.
“A thorough testing program is needed not only to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the human food supply, but to ensure that Americans remain confident in the safety of our nation’s beef supply.
“There are other problems as well. Confidence in USDA is also shaken when it ignores its own protocols and sends a cow exhibiting signs of central nervous system problems to a rendering plant without testing it for mad cow disease. This recent incident in San Angelo, Texas comes on the heels of doubts raised about whether the mad cow in Washington State was actually a downer, as USDA has been claiming.
“And while USDA is about to embark on an inadequate testing program, it is refusing to allow producers to privately test beef, even though without such testing several major export markets remain closed. This is not only bad for business, but it is bad for consumers, both here and abroad. If USDA will not take the steps necessary to protect human health and bolster confidence in the food supply, it should at least allow private companies to do the right thing for their business and their customers.
“All of this calls into question not only USDA’s policies, but its ability to execute those policies as well.
“The American public expects more out of governmental agencies charged with protecting human health from food-borne illnesses. USDA needs to step up to the plate to protect human health so that families are sure that what they put on their plates is safe.”