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Split in Bush Administration over Whether or Not to Cover-Up Mad Cow Disease

No Sacred Cows: Phyllis Fong Takes on the Beltway and Mad Cow Disease
News Report, AsianWeek Staff Report,
Asian Week, Jul 06, 2005

Newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appears to be headed for
a showdown with veteran Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong for ordering new
tests for mad cow disease in the nation¹s beef supply.

Since the tests Fong ordered have returned positive, several countries have
once again stopped buying U.S. beef, provoking uproar in the cattle

Reacting to industry pressure, Johanns now claims Fong requested the tests
without his knowledge or approval and added: ³It caught me by surprise, to
be very honest with you. I believe the secretary should be involved in all
decisions of this significance.²

Fong, the senior officer of the Inspector General¹s office of the USDA was
sworn in on December 2, 2002 after serving as Inspector General for the
Small Business Administration. Like Johanns, she is appointed by the
president and confirmed by the Senate. The Inspector General¹s office is an
independent arm of the department that performs audits and investigations.

When she ordered the re-testing of the latest case, she issued a statement
saying she was also probing ³the performance of [laboratories] in complying
with procedures for conducting tests.² With the cow that was suspected of
having the disease, she reported: ³Auditors noted an unusual pattern of
conflicting test results on one sample.²

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, an outside
testing agency, confirmed that a sample from an animal in November 2004
tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Yet Johanns, who took the reins of the Agriculture Department early this
year in a Bush cabinet shake-up, insists that Fong has overstepped her
bounds. ³I was asked by the Senate and the president to operate the
department,² Johanns said. ³She could recommend; she could strongly urge.
But then the question is whether it¹s an operational decision.²

He reportedly learned of Fong¹s order from his chief of staff after the new
testing was already under way. He charges that it¹s up for debate whether
Fong had the authority to order the new tests, and asserts: ³It¹s my

This is not the first time Fong has found herself in the eye of the storm.

After allegations of misconduct arose in the handling of the first cow with
mad cow disease, Fong launched a criminal investigation.

³Currently we are investigating allegations surrounding the actual state of
the diseased cow before it went to slaughter,² Fong testified last year
before the House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations. ³So that¹s a
criminal investigation that¹s open, ongoing, active and it¹s focused on that

Fong¹s investigation concluded that there was no criminal negligence, but
in July she released an audit of the USDA¹s testing program and concluded it
had serious flaws that could undermine its credibility and lead to
questionable estimates of how widespread the disease is in America.

Fong recently re-opened investigations started during the administration of
Johanns¹ predecessor, Ann Veneman. Veneman began a reform push on testing
U.S. beef, but her efforts eventually ran aground amid battles between
competing interests, including the beef industry, scientists and consumer

The two behind-the-scenes audits follow complaints by several cow-state
senators over policies and procedures in testing for mad cow disease.

Fong said in a statement that ³our field work is ongoing² with results
expected ³late this summer.²

USDA¹s Top Cop

As a young girl, Phyllis Fong had a hankering for the law. Those interests
began in her childhood, kindled by her father.

³When I was growing up, I remember searching, as all kids do, for a career
path that matched my talents,² she said in an article for the USDA. ³And my
father said to me, at one point in high school, that he really thought law
school would be right for me, that I would be a tremendous lawyer. I had
never thought about that as an option.²

Fong¹s family had emigrated from HawaiOi to China generations before, in
the mid-1800s. Unlike a lot of APA families who insist that the children
follow in the family business, Fong recalls, ³He was a doctor and yet he did
not suggest I go into medical school. I think he was tired of my arguing
with him about everything!²

³I had a wonderful experience growing up. They call HawaiOi a melting pot
because of its multi-racial and multi-cultural society. I always felt that
everyone there had the opportunity to become anything. It didn¹t matter what
color, what sex, what race, what ethnic heritage you were, if you were
interested in something you could pursue it,² she said.

An unusual route led to her toward the senior job as USDA¹s Inspector
General. After studying Asian studies and finishing her law degree, she
intended to become an international lawyer specializing in trade and

But when Fong arrived in Washington, D.C., she got a job with the U.S.
Civil Rights Commission, which at the time was studying immigration policy.
One thing led to another, and a colleague who was the Inspector General at
the U.S. Small Business Administration asked her to become her special

³I realized this was a good opportunity. Who can be against going after
fraud and abuse? Who can be against economy and efficiency in government?²
Fong has been in the field ever since, and oversees about 600 employees
divided almost evenly between investigators and auditors.


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