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USDA Fails to Test Suspicious Cow for Mad Cow Disease

May 4, 2004
The Honorable Ann M. Veneman
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Madam Secretary:
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
Policy Analyst