- WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI)
-- The federal laboratory in Ames, Iowa, that conducts all of the nation's
tests for mad cow disease has a history of producing ambiguous and conflicting
results -- to the point where many federal meat inspectors have lost confidence
in it, Department of Agriculture veterinarians and a deer rancher told
United Press International.
- The veterinarians also claim the facility -- part of
the USDA and known as the National Veterinary Services Laboratories --
has refused to release testing results to them and has been so secretive
some suspect it is covering up additional mad cow cases.
- Distrust of the NVSL is so widespread among USDA veterinarians
and meat inspectors it limits mad cow disease surveillance "tremendously,"
said a veterinarian with more than 25 years of experience with the agency.
- The veterinarian, who requested anonymity because he
feared repercussions, said many agency inspectors do not consider it worth
the trouble to inspect cows closely for signs of mad cow disease or to
send brain samples to the NVSL because there is little chance the lab will
issue a positive result, even if the cow is infected.
- In some instances, when USDA veterinarian inspectors
have sent brains from cows they suspected of having mad cow disease, NVSL
staff members have said they did not receive enough brain tissue or that
they received the wrong part of the brain, the veterinarian explained.
- The inspectors insisted they sent in the entire brain,
"but that is the end of the story," he added.
- The USDA's official stance is that the U.S. beef supply
is free of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephlopathy, but the
veterinarian said, "Most agency veterinarians know mad cow is prevalent
and epidemic (in U.S. herds). We're not talking about one or two cases."
- An international panel of mad cow experts, commissioned
by the USDA to review the agency's response to the animal that tested positive
for mad cow in Washington state in December, reached a similar conclusion
in a report they issued last week.
- The panel said it was "probable" additional
infected cows had been imported from Canada and Europe, some of which had
been turned into cow feed and indigenously infected U.S. herds.
- The concern is humans can contract a fatal brain disease
known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating meat contaminated
with the agent that causes mad cow disease.
- "The USDA has such a cohesive relationship with
industry" that it wants to protect the $70 billion beef industry more
than consumers, the veterinarian said, and noted colleagues with whom he
is in close contact think the agency's mad cow surveillance program "is
a laughing matter."
- When asked to comment for this story, USDA spokesman
Jim Rogers requested UPI forward its questions about NVSL via e-mail. Although
UPI complied with this request, the agency did not respond.
- Stanley Hall, who owns a deer herd in Almond, Wis., has
been embroiled in a legal battle with the USDA since 2002 over whether
one of his deer tested positive for chronic-wasting disease. CWD is the
deer equivalent of mad cow disease and is detected using the same test.
- In September 2002 NVSL said one of Hall's deer tested
positive for CWD. Hall, who had retained some of the deer brain, then had
it tested by Beth Williams, a veterinarian and renowned CWD expert at the
University of Wyoming in Laramie.
- Williams concluded in her report that abnormal prions,
the agent thought to cause CWD, were "not detected." Williams
noted, however, that the sample consisted only of the caudal medulla oblongata
region of the brain and not the preferred obex region, meaning early infection
with chronic wasting disease could not be ruled out.
- Based on the conflicting results, and because he knew
the brain sample tested by Williams originated from his deer, Hall suspected
the sample tested by the USDA did not come from his deer, but rather from
some other animal.
- USDA officials, however, refused to release their sample
for DNA analysis, even though Hall has offered to pay the $80 test fee
himself. Hall said he thinks the USDA has refused to conduct a DNA test
"because it won't match" his deer.
- The USDA has not responded for more than a year to a
request filed by Hall's attorney, Gary Drier in Stevens Point, Wis., under
the Freedom of Information Act, asking for additional information about
the tissue sample in question and how it was processed. Under federal law,
the agency is required to respond to a FOIA request within 30 days.
- "There's something dirty going on in that lab in
Ames," Hall said. Based on the NVSL results on his deer, Wisconsin's
Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection ordered Hall to
kill his herd of 100-plus deer, an order he is appealing.
- Dr. Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, agreed
with Hall and said, "There's definitely issues" with the validity
of NVSL test results.
- Friedlander, who was a decorated employee during his
10 years with the agency from 1985 to 1995, recounted an experience he
had in 1991 when he sent a tissue sample from a sick cow to NVSL and a
separate sample from the same cow to a USDA lab in Athens, Ga. The test
results conflicted, with NVSL reporting one type of cancer and the Athens
lab reporting a different type.
- In another incident, Friedlander said he was taking photographs
of cow brains in the early 1990s before he sent them to NVSL for mad cow
- "Some of the brains were really suspicious, but
the test results (from NVSL) always came back negative," he said,
and noted he doubted the results. "But when you only have one lab
(doing all the testing) who's going to listen to your story?"
- The anonymous USDA veterinarian said NVSL often refuses
to provide test results, even to the inspector who initially requested
the test. NVSL's refusal to send lab reports "has been routine for
the last two or three years," he said. "By this time, we don't
- In a 1997 case, with which the veterinarian was familiar,
a brain sample from a cow suspected of having a brain disorder was sent
to NVSL. The diagnosis came back as a disease known as Progressive Ataxia.
This seems implausible, he said, because in the annals of veterinary medicine
the disorder has only been seen in the Charolais and Simmental cattle breeds
-- and only rarely at that -- and the cow in question was a brown and white
- Without an outside lab also conducting tests, "we
are not going to have a very independent analysis. It's very easy to control
the results," he said, and noted a pathologist at NVSL told him lab
staff often do not have access to all the test results from one animal.
- The international panel's report advised the USDA to
decentralize its mad cow testing program and permit other labs around the
country to conduct tests and help facilitate the rapid testing of suspect
- Friedlander said decentralizing the testing would be
a good start toward restoring confidence in the results. Right now, he
added, "Nobody is actually questioning the lab" or conducting
confirmation tests of the results.
- - Steve Mitchell is UPI's medical correspondent. E-mail
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