USDA Tells Mad Cow
Slaughterhouse: No More Tests
Number Of Mad-Cow Tests In NW Didn't Reach Federal Agency's Goal

By Sandi Doughton
Staff Reporter
Seattle Times

The federal government fell short of its goal for mad-cow tests last year in the Northwest, where the nation's first case of the brain-wasting disease was found just before Christmas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's surveillance plan said it would take at least 1,205 tests to adequately monitor the five-state area, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah. But the agency collected only 781 samples, less than two-thirds of the target.
In all other regions of the country, the agency exceeded its goals, bringing the total number of tests to about 20,000 in the 2003 fiscal year, which ended in October.
USDA senior staff veterinarian Lisa Ferguson said the agency didn't meet its target for the Northwest because few suitable slaughterhouses would participate in the voluntary testing program.
Nationwide, testing has plummeted after discovery of the mad-cow case near Yakima, announced Dec. 23.
Only 1,608 animals were tested in January, down from 3,064 in December. Those numbers don't include animals killed and tested in January as part of the investigation into the Yakima mad-cow case.
At Vern's Moses Lake Meats, the slaughterhouse where the infected cow was killed, no animals have been tested since Dec. 24, co-owner Tom Ellestad said.
"USDA requested us to stop taking samples," he said.
Ellestad didn't know why USDA made the request.
Agency spokesman Jim Rogers said he wasn't familiar with the situation at Vern's. He said the national drop-off is due to the fact that, in response to the infected cow, "downer" animals were banned from the human food chain shortly after Christmas and are no longer being shipped to slaughterhouses, where the testing effort had been concentrated.
Changing focus of tests
More than 80 percent of the cattle tested last year were downers ó too sick or injured to stand.
The goal is to test 40,000 animals this year. The agency is working to revamp the program to target animals that die on farms or are sent to rendering plants, Rogers said.
Consumer advocates say the geographical disparity and drop in testing are alarming.
"We just found a case of mad-cow in this country," said Felicia Nestor, food-safety director for the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. "We should be doing a lot of tests now."
Much of the testing should focus on the Northwest, with its strong ties to Canada, birthplace of the infected Holstein, she added.
Three government advisory panels and one congressional committee have called for a more aggressive testing program, going far beyond the 40,000 target, which represents about one-tenth of a percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year. The latest recommendation was made yesterday by a USDA committee of animal-disease experts.
Ferguson said the testing program was never intended to keep mad-cow out of the human food chain, but was a statistical sampling that would detect the disease if it was present in one animal out of a million.
An international panel of experts appointed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said testing should target all downers older than 30 months, as well as cattle that die on a farm or have symptoms of a nervous-system disorder.
USDA estimates that could total 600,000 animals a year, Ferguson said.
Voluntary testing
In addition to testing more animals, Nestor said, a revamped surveillance program should correct what she believes are troubling flaws in the system: It is voluntary, and plant operators generally select animals to be tested.
Ellestad said USDA officials repeatedly offered him up to $10,000 a year to participate in the testing program because they weren't meeting their quotas in the Northwest region.
He finally signed a contract to provide up to 1,000 brain samples for $10 each.
Ellestad also said he ó not a USDA veterinarian ó generally decided which animals to test.
While Ellestad said the voluntary system worked well, Nestor said it could be open to "gaming" by unscrupulous companies.
Fearful of finding an infected animal, plant operators could select healthy animals to test, she said. And if testing isn't required, farmers with sick animals could ship them to slaughterhouses that don't collect samples.
Ferguson confirmed that slaughterhouses don't have to participate in the sampling program.
"If they want us to stay away, they can tell us to stay away."
But in practice, she said, USDA vets work closely with company officials and state inspectors, often collecting samples from animals that are also being tested for other diseases, such as rabies.
Ellestad's account has also raised questions about the adequacy of a testing program that focuses almost exclusively on downers. While a USDA vet said the infected animal was a downer, Ellestad and two other witnesses say she was walking.
If that's true, mad-cow testing should be expanded to include apparently healthy animals, the Republican-led House Committee on Government Reform said last week.
The USDA inspector general is investigating the question.
- Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or
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