Consumer Groups Find Flaws in U.S. Mad Cow Programs

Consumer Groups Find Flaws in U.S. Mad Cow Programs

July 19, 2001 Reuters by Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. consumer groups on Thursday questioned the reliability of the federal government's monitoring program for spotting an outbreak of the deadly mad cow disease, which has never been reported in the United States.

Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project said the number of Agriculture Department tests for mad cow disease -- also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- varied widely for cattle slaughtered in the 20 largest beef-producing states.

``The USDA's claim that the U.S. is free from this disease would be more credible if the testing program was not in such disarray,'' said Felicia Nestor, food safety director at the Government Accountability Project.

Scientists believe mad cow disease spreads to other cattle when the bones, spinal cord and other remains of diseased livestock are ground up for use in animal feed. The United States has banned such livestock feed since 1997.

More than 100 people, primarily in Britain, have died from mad cow's human version, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, after consuming infected meat.

Between August 1997 and December 2000, mad cow testing rates ranged from 1,004 brains per million cattle slaughtered in New York to 0.5 brains per million cattle in Kansas, the consumer groups said.

The average testing rate for the top 20 beef-producing states, accounting for 98 percent of all cattle slaughtered, was 21 brains per million cattle.

``Even though the plant I worked in had high numbers of downer cows, no brains were ever taken for BSE testing,'' said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, consumer activists urged the Bush administration to strengthen its mad cow detection program, so all testing rates can be approximately equal in all states.

USDA officials said the consumer groups' analysis was flawed because it takes into account slaughtered cattle that were not susceptible to mad cow disease.

Some 88 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the United States are less than two years old, an age level which cattle have never tested positive for mad cow disease.

``Independent analysis has shown no evidence of BSE here in the U.S., but we will continue to look to improve our systems to prevent BSE,'' said USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz. ``In terms of the report, I think what I can see of it lacks true scientific analysis.''

Herglotz said this year USDA was planning to double the number of tests on downer cattle from the 2,500 tests held in 2000.

Harvard University is expected to issue in the next few weeks its assessment on the effectiveness of U.S. animal disease prevention programs and the likelihood mad cow disease could spread to the United States.

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