Response from National Cattlemen's Beef Association to Article About Mad Cow Testing

April 5, 2001 by Jeffrey 
A. Nelson at VegSource

We received a response to our recent article entitled "USDA Mad Cow Strategy: Don't Look, Don't Find" from a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Mr. Gary Weber. 

VegSource very much wants to give the cattle industry the opportunity to make their views known on this subject. Anything the cattle industry wants to send us we are more than happy to share with the many many people who read our website each month.

Here is the unedited response from Gary Weber of the NCBA:

April 3, 2001

I rarely take time to comment on articles I see...but I must make an exception to one you recently published. I found your article quite off track and full of gross errors and obvious biased..

You extensive use of information and opinion provided by Moser is one example. 

"Dr. Markus Moser, a molecular biologist and guest researcher at Oxford University in England, heads the Swiss company Prionics, which developed a rapid-response test for BSE, called the Prionics Check Test. The Check Test costs about $40 per cow, and Moser says it has found cases of mad cow in tests of "healthy" cattle which otherwise would have entered the food chain."

Come on ..of course a guy who is set to make millions off selling "his" going to bash what we are the facts..

The IHC test being used by APHIS was the first such test fully tested and verified in the world. It is as sensitive as the prionics just takes more time. In provides less false error that requires many more confirmatory steps..time and expense. Pit our IHC test against the prionics..side by side and the only difference will be lots of false positives..extra tests with difference in true ability to detect the prion protein. It seems you were victimized by a sales pitch.

Long before Moser even knew what BSE was...the U.S. had already started surveillance..already banned the importation of cattle and products that could carry the BSE agent.

You need to be more suspicious of the views of so called "European Experts." If they were so "smart" why did they continue to import live cattle and contaminated feed from the UK after we banned it in 1989..ask Moser that!

Why did Europe continue to sell BSE contaminated feed to 3rd world countries long after we banned the importation of cattle and all feeds that could carry BSE from ALL of Europe into the US in 1997?

Why was PCB/dioxin contaminated feed fed to pigs and chickens in Europe and why did the government cover it up??

Why did FMD [foot and mouth disease] spread across the UK and then Europe?

If you want to do a story that is objective...ask these questions.

What you will find is Europeans have lost sight of how to regulate agriculture... their arrogance and failure to invest in and apply science in agriculture is outrageous. It is even more outrageous that anyone from Europe would have the guts to criticize what we have done here. Dr. Moser and European officials should be embarrassed at their behavior and their consumer constituents outraged.

In the US we have never cut corners on BSE prevention..we have aggressively pursued prevention...LONG before Europe ever did.

You might say "sure Dr. Weber takes this position...he works for the cattle industry." The fact is, I eat beef, my wife and 4 children eat 107 year old great aunt eats it...neither I nor any of our members will tolerate anything other than strict regulations and enforcement of BSE prevention strategies.

The fact we ARE BSE FREE is no accident...the fact Europe is NOT is no surprise to any of us who know how they do business.

Gary Weber
National Cattlemen's Beef Association
1301 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Suite 300
Washington DC 20004-1701

VegSource comments:

I would like to clarify one point in the article about the sensitivity of the Prionics and other rapid testing techniques, versus the Immunohistochemistry Test (IHC), used by the USDA to test for BSE.

No one I spoke with in researching my article said the IHC test was not highly accurate. As I noted, it is used by governments in Europe to confirm positive results when a positive is generated by the rapid BSE tests.

What I learned is that there are problems inherent to the IHC test, the principal one having to do with the interpretive nature of the test, which can be impacted by how hard the person doing the test actually works.

Moser explained that with the IHC test, you can take 100 sections of cow brain to examine for prions...or you can take only 2 or 3. How much effort goes into the actual test may determine whether or not an accurate result comes back. If you take 2 or 3 sections, and don't see BSE, you can conclude there is no BSE. But if a rapid test comes back positive, and you look at a few sections using IHC and see no prions, further sectioning may subsequently reveal prions are indeed present. This was what Mr. O'Connor also said occurs in Ireland with the IHC. In the US, there is no positive result from a rapid test which might prompt the IHC technician to continue looking in a given sample, where infection might otherwise be missed.

Also, in downer cows which die and lay there for a day, the prionics test WILL catch prions, while IHC never will -- because the brain has turned too liquidy if it hasn't been preserved properly. When they test on degraded downer cows in Switzerland and Germany and get a positive, the government lab doesn't even bother trying to do an IHC test to confirm it because they know they will never find prions in a watery brain sample of that condition, even when it's filled with them, according to Moser.

Moser also says that issues can be further complicated because prions are not necessarily evenly distributed across the brain or spinal material. This makes it possible for one test to get a positive result, signaling the presence of prions, but sending a different part of the same brain to another lab to for IHC confirmation testing may not find anything. Going back and sectioning more parts of the brain, if you're doing ICH, may reveal a positive BSE sample after all -- if the government examiners wish to go back and look again.

The rapid tests are highly sensitive. Here is a table from the Nature article which shows results from a standard test. Tests B, C, and D are Enfer, Prionics and Bio-Rad, respectively.

Table 1 Sensitivity and specificity using predetermined cut-off points
Test A Test B Test C Test D
Sensitivity 70% 100% 100% 100%
Specificity 90% 100% 100% 100%

Additional tests were run using highly diluted samples, which would contain far fewer prions. Here you can see results for the dilution tests, and how many positives out of 20 prion samples each product detected at various dilutions:

Table 2 Number of homogenate samples scoring positive (above cutoff) at each dilution level
Dilution Test A Test B Test C Test D
0 6/6 6/6 6/6 6/6
10-1 0/20 15/20 (+2?*) 20/20 20/20
10-1.5   0/20 20/20 20/20
10-2.0     0/20 20/20
10-2.5       18/20
10-3.0       1/20
10-3.5       0/20
* Two samples rated inconclusive at this dilution.

This is from the Nature - Moynagh, J. Schimmel, H. Nature, 1999, vol. 400, p. 105. - which BSE-chief Linda Detwiler at USDA has not seen.

According to one expert not affiliated with any testing company, the Bio-Rad test isn't really "better" than the other tests just because it is somewhat more sensitive to a low, low cutoff of dilutions.

In fact, German BSE authorities increased the sensitivity cutoff value which they used with the rapid test, thus decreasing the test's sensitivity so as to prevent many false positives.

I thought it was interesting that Mr. Weber of the NCBA does not comment on many of the points in the article about the enormous disparity in testing between Europe and the US. The sheer number of BSE tests as well as the types of animals being tested as "fallen" is troubling.

Rather than discuss these points, Mr. Weber makes observations about what he believes are Dr. Moser's personal motivations for speaking with me. (This seems an ironic charge coming from Mr. Weber, who is paid a spokesman for the Cattlemen's Association.)

Mr. Weber also charges the European agricultural industry is highly inferior to that of the U.S. That may or may not be so, but that is not the issue I set out to examine. My article is about BSE-testing. Dr. Moser is an expert in this field.

While I am not Dr. Moser's defender, from all I have learned in speaking to various experts, he is someone to be praised for the role his company played in forcing BSE out into the open in Europe. I'm sure he is not any more popular with the European meat industry than he is with Mr. Weber.

Mr. Weber's suggestion that I should ask Dr. Moser questions about policy set by European governments seems at best a weak defense, at worst a deflection from the real issue. Moser did not control agricultural policy in Europe at any time that I am aware of.

There is little to be gained for me to ask Dr. Moser questions about political decisions made by European governments. It seems that Mr. Weber, as the NCBA's representative, is the one who should be answering some very critical questions. Why aren't we taking the same precautions as the Europeans who, when they took them, learned to their shock that they did have mad cow after all? And if Weber's answer is "Because we don't have it here," it's obvious to anyone who has looked into this that this is far from being proven from a scientific standpoint.

It seems apparent Europe learned from their mistakes, including mistakes in testing. Why shouldn't the U.S. benefit from the expertise they acquired?

Mr. Weber of the NCBA says in his letter above,

"In the US we have never cut corners on BSE prvention..we have aggressively pursued prevention...LONG before Europe ever did."

However, Mr. Weber appeared on an episode of Oprah Winfrey in 1996 during which it was pointed out that the US was still feeding cattle to cattle, while the practice had been banned in the UK.

When Oprah Winfrey asked Mr. Weber if this was true, whether the cows were still being fed to cows in the US, Mr. Weber acknowledged it was, responding

"There is a limited amount of that done in the United States."

[Weber also stammered (in response to Oprah's reminding of the audience that cows were supposed to be herbivores): "Now keep in mind, before you--you view the ruminant animal, the cow, as simply a vegetarian--remember that they drink milk."--BSE coordinator]

It wasn't until over a year later, in June of 1997, that the USDA actually issued a rule placing a ban on feeding cows to cows in the US, as had already been done in Europe.

According to a very recent GAO study, the rules set out in 1997 to help prevent the spread of mad cow in the US by changing feed practices -- have been largely ignored by over two-thirds of feed mills in the US -- several thousand -- during the past 4 years. Compliance is still far from being achieved as of mid-March 2001.

Additionally, in Europe it is illegal to feed chickens, pigs and cows' blood to cows, as recent research suggests it may be possible to recycle mad cow disease back into cattle this way. This practice, however, is still legal in the US, and widely done.

This is at odds with Mr. Weber's assertions that the US is keeping "ahead of Europe" or "never cutting corners on BSE prevention."

Another guest who appeared on the Oprah show with Mr. Weber in 1996 was former cattle rancher, Howard Lyman. At that time, Lyman was urging that the US adopt the kinds of measures Europe had embraced to help prevent BSE in the US

Lyman and Oprah were subsequently sued by cattle ranchers after this TV appearance, with the apparent support of Mr. Weber's organization, the NCBA. The cattlemen claimed Lyman was "disparaging" beef and telling lies when he spoke about possible safety problems vis-a-vis mad cow and American meat.

But the cattle industry lost their trial against Lyman and Oprah. And the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, concluding that Lyman's statements and opinions about meat industry practices were "based on truthful, established fact." (The court further admonished the cattlemen saying, "Defamation law should not be used as a threat of force individuals to muzzle their truthful, reasonable opinions and beliefs.")

I keep this in mind when I read statements like the above from Mr. Weber and the NCBA smearing someone and claiming they are lying or uninformed. History shows the cattlemen's claims do not hold up under the scrutiny of a truth-finding setting of judge and jury.

There is nothing you can do in the slaughterhouse or kitchen to prevent the transmission of mad cow, says Dr. Philip Monk, a British epidemiologist who is leading a new investigation into the spread of mad cow. That's because the disease is untreatable and always fatal. "The only thing you can do is to make sure that you don't get exposed to it."

That is what makes the stakes so high in the mad cow debate.

Mr. Weber says above: " Pit our IHC test against the prionics..side by side and the only difference will be lots of false positives..extra tests with difference in true ability to detect the prion protein."

Is the cattle industry willing to pit the European testing system side by side with the current US testing system, and see what the difference is? Will the NCBA call for the same side by side measures taken here as were taken in what once were other "BSE-free" countries, and see if we can stand up?

I asked one of the BSE researchers consulted in the article if he wished to see the comments of Mr. Weber and possibly respond to the criticisms. Here is this researcher's response:

"Thank you, but I am not interested in the comments of Mr. Weber of the US cattle industry. He may attack Dr. Moser, me or European countries, but he can't change the facts. For me personally, it is only important that we in Germany now have the most complete feed ban against possibly spongiform disease infective materials, as well as the best BSE testing program worldwide. These measures only came as a reaction to the first BSE case in a German cow. You in the US are now in a situation very similar to what we had before our first BSE case."

Jeffrey Nelson

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