Mad Cow 'Not A Downer'
Say Three Witnesses
Dow Jones Newswires

WASHINGTON (AP)--A House committee on Tuesday questioned the government's credibility in the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, quoting three witnesses who denied Agriculture Department claims that the infected Holstein was lame.
The worker who slaughtered the cow, the hauler who delivered it and an owner of the slaughterhouse all recalled seeing the infected animal on its feet, rather than it being the nonambulatory "downer" described by USDA officials.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the House Government Reform Committee's chairman and senior Democrat said the information challenges the department's assertion that only downer cattle or cows with a twitch indicating something wrong with their nervous system need to be tested.
"If the new information is accurate, USDA's surveillance program may need to be significantly expanded," committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote. "The new information also raises questions about USDA's credibility. The American people need to have confidence in what USDA reports about the safety of the food supply."
Within a week after the case was confirmed on Dec. 23, Veneman doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 the number of cattle to be tested annually for mad cow disease. Since then, an international panel she appointed and a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee have said the testing needs to go far beyond that.
Waxman said in an interview Tuesday that the department should start random sample testing of healthy cattle. "If this cow was not a downer cow, then their sample is too narrow," he said.
The department stood by its declarations that the animal was a downer, and that its surveillance did the job by finding what was the second known case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in North America. The first case turned up in Canada last May.
Meanwhile, the department's inspector general's office said Tuesday that it has begun its own investigation into how officials handled the case.
The infected U.S. animal was slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meats, a small plant in Washington state.
Tom Ellestad, who manages the slaughterhouse with his brother, said in a Feb. 3 affidavit to the Government Accountability Project that the cow stood up after arriving at the plant and that portraying it as a downer was a "smokescreen."
Ellestad said the Holstein was tested because the plant had a separate contract with USDA, under which Vern's provided tissue samples regardless of whether the animals appeared sick or healthy.
In a separate telephone interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Ellestad said everything in his 18-page affidavit taken by GAP, a whistleblowers group, and cited by the House committee is accurate.
"That was a walking cow," David Louthan, who recalls killing the animal, told the Washington State Agriculture Committee at a Feb. 3 hearing.
Randy Hull, the hauler, said in a statement in January that he loaded three cows from Sunny Dene Dairy for delivery to Vern's on Dec. 9. "The animals each walked onto my trailer," he said.
Agriculture Department spokesman Steve Cohen said Tuesday that the infected Holstein was unable to walk at the plant. An Agriculture Department veterinarian at the plant examined it and tagged it as a downer, Cohen said. He said he did not know whether the plant had the separate contract for testing that Ellestad mentioned in his affidavit.
Cohen also said another cow that day initially was classified as a downer, but then was reclassified as ambulatory after it got up. He said he was not in a position to tell if the people who handled the Holstein had mistaken it for another.
Ellestad, asked if a case of mistaken identity was possible, said, "No."
If the infected Holstein had no neurological symptoms of mad cow - and was able to walk - then the department can't assume that "all infected cattle will be either downer cows or cows that exhibit symptoms of central nervous system damage," Davis and Waxman wrote.
Copyright © 2004, Dow Jones Newswires



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