Natural Foods Merchandiser

Diseased cow sparks debate about testing program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a third case of mad cow disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, last week. And while fears about food safety in the past have ignited the natural and organic beef industry, this incident has riled a consumer advocacy group, which says current levels of testing and tracing are insufficient to ensure consumer safety.

The infected beef cow died on a farm in Alabama, where it had lived for less than a year, according to the Agriculture Department. USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford said, "It was an older animal, quite possibly upwards of 10 years of age," meaning it was born before the 1997 ban on specific risk materials in animal feed.

Clifford downplayed fears that other animals might also have BSE. In a news conference, he said the USDA would try to locate other animals born into the same original herd and any of their offspring. "Experience worldwide has shown us that it is highly unusual to find BSE in more than one animal in a herd or in an affected animal's offspring. Nevertheless, all animals of interest will be tested for BSE."

Industry observers contrast that to the USDA's policy to not test every cow for BSE. "The current level is equivalent to testing only 1 percent of animals slaughtered," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y. "We think we should test every cow over 20 months at slaughter." Test results for cows younger than 20 months are unreliable, Halloran said.

But the Bush administration has sought recently to reduce the number of cows it tests. "One of the striking things [in the news conference] was the suggestion that we were reaching the end of the enhanced surveillance program," Halloran said. "USDA only budgeted for 40,000 tests this year," compared with the 350,000 tests per year it has done since the ESP was initiated in 2003, after the first discovery of an infected U.S. cow. "We think that cutting back the program would be a severe blow to food safety and to confidence in beef. We slaughter about 35 million head of cattle a year. If they cut that back to 40,000 then we're down to about a tenth of a percent, and that's way too small to have any good idea of what's going on. We now know that we have mad cow disease here. This isn't the time to stick our head in the sand and stop testing."

Clifford said the purpose of the ESP "was to take a snapshot in time to give us an estimate of prevalence," and not as a safety measure.

Now, however, the USDA is intent on finding the diseased cow's birth cohorts and offspring, and testing them. At press time, it was not known whether the diseased cow was born in the United States or in Canada, or where her offspring might be. "We would go back to the farm of origin and talk to that particular owner about what records they have … relative to time of birth and her first year of life on that farm," Clifford said.

"That's where we run into trouble," Halloran said, "because we don't have an animal ID system and we don't know its history."

But Clifford emphasized "that human and animal health in the United States are protected by a system of interlocking safeguards, and that we remain very confident in the safety of U.S. beef."

He also said that as USDA moved forward with its investigation, "We will continue to be very transparent in sharing information with the public and with our trading partners around the world."

That did little to reassure Halloran. "We know almost nothing about the testing program itself aside from the number of animals they've tested." CU wants to know the age of the animals tested, since test results on animals younger than 20 months are less reliable. The consumer advocacy group also wants to know whether USDA is testing animals from high-risk groups, or is conducting the equivalent of an airport security pat-down on children and old ladies. "We've filed a [Freedom of Information Act request] and they haven't responded. That's how transparent they are."

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