Concerns Raised About
1997 US Mad Cow Tests

CBC News
GENEVA, N.Y. - The United States did not properly analyze two suspected cases of mad cow disease in 1997, years before it showed up in Canada and devastated this country's beef industry, a CBC News investigation suggests.
Dr. Masuo Doi, the U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian who initially investigated both 1997 cases, says he is haunted by fears that the right tests were not done and that his own department did not properly investigate whether the cow had BSE.
Doi is now retired and speaking for the first time about his concerns.
"I don't want to carry on off to my retirement," he told CBC's Investigative Unit. "I want to hand it over to someone to continue, to find out. I think it's very, very important ...
"How many did we miss?"
Doi's concerns are echoed by Dr. Karl Langheindrich, the chief scientist at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Athens, Ga., that ran the early tests on one of the cows.
Documents obtained by CBC show that the samples tested by the department did not contain parts of the animal's brain critical for an accurate diagnosis.
Langheindrich told CBC that the department will never be able to say for sure what was wrong with the cow, though at the time it publicly ruled out bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
"Based on the clinical symptoms and the description given by the veterinarian, you can verify, yes, this animal had CNS, central nervous system disease, but you can't specify it in your findings further than that," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is refusing to talk about the cases, saying the documents provided to CBC speak for themselves.
1997 video from New York shows stricken cow
The scientists' comments raise new questions about how the U.S. industry has been able to essentially escape BSE when Canada's much smaller industry, observing almost identical safety and testing practices, has had four cases in the past two years.
Part of the answer could be in a slaughterhouse in Oriskany Falls, N.Y., which eight years ago may have become the home of the first American case of mad cow.
Bobby Godfrey, who worked at the plant, remembers a cow that arrived one day in May 1997.
"I thought it was a mad dog, to tell you the truth," he told CBC. "Didn't know what the hell it was. Never seen a cow act like that in all the cows I saw go through there. There was definitely something wrong with it."
The suspect cow was recorded on USDA videotape, which has been obtained by CBC News. It shows the animal trembling, hunching its back and charging plant workers.
"Me and my vet, including our inspector, they thought [the cow] was quite different," Doi told CBC. "They thought it was the BSE."
Key areas of brain not tested: documents
Documents obtained by CBC News show that the U.S. government was preparing for the worst. Initial signs pointed to its first case of mad cow disease, which would have immediate impacts on U.S. beef exports to countries around the world.
But further tests on the animal came back negative, the USDA later reported.
The final conclusion from an independent university lab: The cow had a rare brain disorder never reported in that breed of cattle either before or since ñ not the dreaded bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
CBC News has now learned that key areas of the brain where signs of BSE would be most noticeable were never tested. The most important samples somehow went missing.
That information was contained in a USDA lab report that was left out of the documents officially released by the department. It proves that the scientist in charge of the case knew his investigation was limited because of the missing brain tissue.
Second suspected case surfaces at same plant
With questions about the first cow still lingering, a second American cow showed up at the same plant three months later with suspicious symptoms. Videotape of that animal shows its head was bobbing and it was unable to rise to its feet, setting off warning bells for mad cow disease.
The second cow's brain was also sent for testing. Officials were later told verbally that the samples had tested negative for BSE.
Doi made repeated requests for documentary proof of the negative tests. To this day, he has seen nothing.
"How many are buried?" he wonders of other possible cases of BSE in the United States. "Can you really trust our inspection [system]?"
For weeks, the USDA told CBC that it had no records for the second cow suspected of having BSE in 1997. Then just a few days ago, it suddenly produced documents that it says proves that a cow was tested and that the tests were negative for mad cow disease.
But the documents also prove, once again, that there were problems with the testing. This time, so much brain tissue was missing that it compromised the examination.
The problems were so severe that one USDA scientist wrote that his own examination was of "questionable validity" because he couldn't tell what part of the cow's brain he was looking at.
Felicia Nestor, a lawyer who represents U.S. government whistle-blowers, says she isn't surprised by what this CBC News investigation uncovered.
"There have been too many times where information or tissues or other evidence has just sort of disappeared, fallen through the cracks," said Nestor, who has been handling USDA-related cases for nearly 10 years.
"There are a lot of holes. There are a lot of holes."
Commons committee hears coverup allegations
The results of the CBC investigation were broadcast on the same day that a former U.S. agriculture inspector, during testimony at a House of Commons committee, accused his own government of covering up suspected cases of BSE.
On Tuesday, Lester Friedlander repeated a claim he has made before ñ that cases of BSE surfaced in the U.S. long before the disease showed up in Canada.
Friedlander, who was fired from his job as head of inspections at a meat-packing plant in Philadelphia in 1995 after criticizing what he called unsafe practices, says he is willing to take a lie detector test to prove he is telling the truth.
The U.S. government has denied his allegations.
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