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USDA Alienates Japan by Being Evasive on Mad Cow Problem in the USA

Japan's mad cow questions go unanswered
By Steve Mitchell
United Press International
Published 5/15/2004 8:16 AM

WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed to
supply the number of cows exhibiting signs of a brain disorder it has tested
for mad cow disease to Japanese authorities, who requested the information
more than four months ago, an official told United Press International.

The failure to provide the information comes amid the recent revelation USDA
officials did not test an animal displaying brain disorder symptoms
consistent with mad cow disease at a Texas plant in April.

The lack of this data also could hamper ongoing negations aimed at reopening
Japan's borders to U.S. beef. Those negotiations are slated to gear up again
next week in Tokyo. Japan has resisted reopening its borders since shutting
them in December, after a cow infected with mad cow disease was detected in
Washington state.

Animals with brain disorder or central nervous system symptoms are
considered the most likely to be infected with mad cow disease -- the reason
the USDA's official policy is to test all such animals.

That also is the reason Japanese authorities have requested the information
on the CNS cows.

"Our technical people are asking for that (because) if you tested more of
these animals, it's a more accurate survey" of whether the herds are
infected, a Japanese official, who requested anonymity, told UPI.

Although the Japanese government requested this information in January, the
official said the USDA has not yet provided any substantial statistics.

"We received a one-page document" showing the number of dead and downer cows
-- those unable to stand -- that have been tested, the official said. But
there is no information on the number of tested animals with CNS signs, he
added.

The USDA has also failed to address other questions about how the agency is
ensuring mad cow disease does not infect U.S. herds, the official said. This
has created a sense of frustration among Japanese authorities.

"We ask many questions to them, but they answered quite few," the official
said. When the USDA does provide information "it's only (a) partial answer
-- we don't receive (a) full answer," he said. "The Japanese people are
frustrated" by this, he added.

J.B. Penn, USDA's undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services,
who has been heavily involved in the negotiations with Japan, declined
repeated requests from UPI for comment.

USDA spokesman Wayne Baggett told UPI, "In light of negotiations and
everything, we don't really want to respond to some kind of anonymous
questions ... If you have some specific allegations by some specific
officials we will consider answering them or getting answers for them, but
otherwise we don't want to do that interview."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann
Veneman on Thursday, saying he was concerned USDA officials have told the
House Committee on Government Reform the agency does not keep track of how
many CNS cows it tests for mad cow disease.

Waxman, ranking Democrat on the committee, noted that USDA official Ronald
Hicks wrote in a March 22 letter to the committee the agency's Food Safety
and Inspection Service had condemned from 201 to 249 cattle for CNS signs in
each of the past five years. But, Hicks added, "It is not possible to
determine, from the data we currently collect, how many of these cattle were
tested."

Waxman wrote, "It thus appears that not only does USDA not routinely track
the gap between the number of condemned and tested cattle, but that USDA
could not even calculate this gap when requested to do so by Congress."

USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said the agency would have to read Waxman's letter
thoroughly before it could issue a substantial response.

Last month, fresh from returning from talks with Japanese officials in
Tokyo, Penn told reporters the agency's "hope" and "expectation" was Japan
would open its borders by the end of summer, after a series of meetings the
two nations have agreed to hold beginning May 18.

The Japanese official, however, said Penn's enthusiasm may be premature.

"At this moment, Japan's position is the same as before," the official said,
meaning the government still is adhering to its demands for testing all U.S.
cattle exported to the country. The official noted a recent survey showing
90 percent of Japanese consumers support this position.

This is an issue of grave concern to Japanese consumers, another official
told UPI. He noted that, in 2001, when the first case of mad cow was
detected in Japan, "Japanese consumers were very frightened. Consumption of
beef dropped dramatically, by 70 percent."

The concern is humans can contract an incurable, fatal brain disorder called
variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat infected with the mad cow
pathogen.

The first official said the scheduled technical meetings were a positive
step, because now "we could get some information we couldn't get before."

He noted, however, that Japanese officials took issue with some of Penn's
other statements to reporters -- for example, he appeared to downplay some
of their most serious concerns, including the worry that cows under 30
months old can carry the disease and therefore should be tested. Two of
Japan's young cows --ages 21 and 23 months -- have tested positive within
the past year for mad cow, otherwise known as bovine spongiform
encephalopathy.

USDA plans to launch an expanded surveillance plan beginning in June, but it
will involve only testing cows 30 months and older.

Referring to Japan's young cows that tested positive, Penn told reporters,
"the main BSE testing laboratory in Weybridge, England, won't confirm that
those two animals had BSE."

A Japanese official, however, said that is not the full story. Weybridge was
sent a sample of tissue that was subject only to an immunohistochemistry
test -- and Japanese officials already knew its results were negative.

Another type of test, called Western blot, was positive and by Japanese
regulations a positive on either IHC or Western blot is considered positive
for mad cow. The USDA plans to use the Western blot as a confirmatory test
in its expanded surveillance program.

Japan's laboratory is considered one of the world's foremost authorities in
mad cow disease testing and one of only three reference labs in the world
recognized by the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris. The other
two reference labs are Weybridge and a lab in Switzerland.

The official noted Penn was aware of the Western blot results because a
Japanese official had relayed the information to a person in his office.

The anonymous official accused the USDA of "trying to lower Japan's
credibility" by making statements downplaying or dismissing its concerns in
the mass media. He also said the agency appears to be doing the bidding of
big meat industry. "For some reason, this government can't do anything the
big meat industry (opposes)," he said.

Penn also emphasized the feed ban had been strengthened to ensure there was
no spread of the disease among U.S. herds. But the Japanese official said
his country had been requesting information supporting the agency's
contention and so far those questions have not been answered.

The agency also has not responded to Japan's inquiries regarding the status
of investigations into whether the Washington state cow was a downer, the
official said. The House Government Reform Committee and the USDA's Office
of Inspector General have opened investigations into the matter.

Whether the Washington cow was a downer is central to the USDA's
surveillance program because it has focused predominantly on downer animals
and tested few, if any, healthy animals. If the animal in Washington was
standing -- as at least three eyewitnesses have said -- it raises the
question of whether other, seemingly healthy but infected animals are being
passed for human consumption.

--

Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com