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New York Times Cites OCA on Inadequacy of USDA's Mad Cow Testing

The New York Times

March 17, 2004

Plan for Sharp Rise in Mad Cow Testing Gets Mixed Reaction


The Agriculture Department's plan for a tenfold increase in testing for mad
cow disease was greeted yesterday with a mixture of optimism and skepticism.

The plan, announced Monday, involves testing half the nation's 446,000
"downer" cows -- animals deemed at higher risk of having mad cow disease
because they cannot walk or because they show signs of nervous system
disorders. It will also test 20,000 older, apparently healthy cows at

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the goal was to reassure
consumers, trading partners and the industry that cows were being properly

Some experts in risk analysis said the plan was an excellent way to assess
the problem, but consumer groups and trading partners were not convinced.
Japan, until December one of the largest importers of American beef, said
its ban would continue until the cattle industry tested every cow

"We want to see the U.S. government introduce the same system for beef
safety, or at least an equivalent system, that we have in Japan," said
Tadashi Sato, agricultural attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington,
The Associated Press reported. "We test all slaughtered cattle, regardless
of age -- not some."

The plan stems from recommendations made by an international review panel
appointed by Ms. Veneman after the nation's first case of mad cow disease
was discovered in December on a dairy farm in Mabton, Wash.

Until then, the department tested about 20,000 cattle a year for the
disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

In January, the department banned meat from downer cattle for human
consumption and increased the testing goal to 40,000 animals. The advisory
panel recommended an increase to 221,000.

The surveillance program, to begin June 1, will last 12 to 18 months.
Testing laboratories will be established around the country and are expected
to process 250,000 to 400,000 snippets of brain tissue taken from the
specified cattle. Those cows will be identified at specially designated
state or federally inspected slaughterhouses, rendering plants, veterinary
diagnostic laboratories, pet-food plants, livestock auctions or on the farm.

By the laws of probability, the department said, that many tests should
detect mad cow disease even if it is present in only 5 cows of the 45
million in the nation.

Dr. George Gray, executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis,
which has worked closely with the Agriculture Department to assess the scope
of the problem, said testing the higher-risk animals was the right way to

"We have been quite convinced that the disease is on its way out," Dr. Gray
said. "If they find one, two or three cases, it will be a signal that we had
a bigger challenge than we thought. If they find no cases, it will suggest
that the prevalence is extremely low. That would mean there's a good chance
the disease is not here at all."

But Dr. Michael Greger, an expert on mad cow disease for the Organic
Consumers Association, based in Little Marais, Minn., said the program did
not go far enough.

Dr. Greger noted that several witnesses had said the infected cow in
Washington was not a downer. The department's plan calls for testing 20,000
animals over the age of 30 months that appear healthy, he said, but during
the surveillance period millions of such cattle will enter the food supply.

Dave Louthan, the former slaughterhouse worker who killed the cow that
turned out to be infected, said: "No farmer in his right mind will call them
up and say, 'I suspect I have a cow with B.S.E. -- please come test it.' The
farmer will dig a big hole in his back pasture and bury that cow."