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USDA's Top Official on Mad Cow Testing Resigns

MSNBC News

USDA
Mad-cow testing official resigns
Chief of USDA service had wanted to limit tests
Bobby Acord, administrator of the USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection
Service, resigned on Tuesday.

By Jon Bonné
MSNBC
March 23, 2004

The U.S. official responsible for the nation's mad cow testing program is
resigning, the Agriculture Department confirmed Tuesday

Bobby Acord, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS), is stepping down for personal reasons, spokeswoman Courtney
Billet told MSNBC.

"He has decided to retire," Billet said. "He has been taking care of his mom
and he also has been responsible for an elderly aunt in West Virginia."

Acord has been a vocal critic of expanded testing for bovine spongiform
encephalopathy, a fatal brain disease that afflicts cattle but can be
transmitted into humans. The first U.S. case of mad cow disease, as BSE is
commonly known, was discovered in December in a Washington state dairy cow.

"There is no scientific evidence to support anything beyond what we're doing
in this country, quite frankly," Acord said during a news briefing last May,
just after the first Canadian case of BSE was found in an Alberta cow. The
infected U.S. cow was imported from an Alberta ranch in 2001.

At the time Acord made the statement, plans called for testing of 20,000
cattle across the United States. Those tests uncovered the nation's first
case, and testing plans have since been expanded to a projected 200,000 or
more of the about 35 million cows slaughtered annually in the United States.
The USDA's new testing plan, announced last week, was based largely on
recommendations of an outside panel of international experts convened in
January by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

After the Canadian case was discovered, USDA officials barred Canadian cows
and beef from crossing the border, but Acord and other officials told USDA
employees not to track down cows that had previously come into the United
States from its northern border.

Also last May, Acord dismissed the possibility of adopting an approach to
BSE in North America similar to that used in Europe, where many countries
test half their herd for the disease. "What the Europeans are doing, I don't
think, necessarily applies here," he said. "I think what we have to do is
stick with the system that has worked for us."

Growing concerns
In late February, a senior USDA scientist complained to The New York Times
that the agency's scientific decisions about animal safety were often
eclipsed by economic concerns, notably in regard to efforts to lift a U.S.
ban on Canadian beef imposed after the Canadian mad cow case was discovered.

Then in early March, several House members were frustrated by Acord's
responses to their questions during panel testimony about testing for mad
cow disease.

"It's really like pulling teeth or worse trying to get the right kind of
information out of these people," Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., told MSNBC
on Tuesday. Of Acord's retirement, Hinchey said, "It's not shocking, but you
wonder why he would select this particular moment."

Hinchey said he questioned whether testing conducted prior to the Dec. 23
discovery of the first U.S. case had been as comprehensive as USDA officials
had described it.

Acord's resignation came Tuesday morning, Billet said, and is effective
immediately. An acting chief for APHIS has not yet been named. She said the
continuous workload at the service -- handling not just the nation's
long-feared mad cow outbreak but also surveillance for bird flu and other
animal diseases -- may have taken a toll, though it was not a deciding
factor.

"I would hesitate to characterize it that those things wore him down,"
Billet said. "I think it just all came together."

Among other things, APHIS runs the National Veterinary Services Laboratory
in Ames, Iowa, where national testing for mad cow and other animal diseases
is coordinated. Its scientists and investigators are responsible for
tracking the spread of animal diseases throughout the country, and
preventing foreign diseases from crossing U.S. borders.

Acord, who was named acting administrator two days before 9/11 and confirmed
in November of 2001, controlled some 7,000 employees and an annual budget of
$800 million. He previously was associate administrator of APHIS and began
working for the USDA in 1966, as a commodity grader for the Agricultural
Marketing Service.
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive