USDA Probe Finds Big Holes
In US Mad Cow Testing

By Randy Fabi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government investigation on Tuesday gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture poor marks in testing cattle for mad cow disease, saying the agency was neglecting to test the majority of cattle most at risk.
"The problems identified during our review, if not corrected, may ... reduce the credibility of any assertion regarding the prevalence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the United States," said the USDA's Office of Inspector General. A draft report was provided by the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee.
The report said that despite a much-advertised expanded surveillance program the USDA was not testing adult cattle that died on the farm and had failed to test hundreds of cattle condemned due to possible central nervous system disorder -- a symptom of mad cow disease and many other diseases.
"A process for obtaining samples from animals that died on the farm has not been developed," the report said.
"These animals comprise the largest component of the targeted high-risk population and the most difficult to identify, obtain and test," it added.
Ron DeHaven, head of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said 70 percent of its mad cow tests last month came from dead cattle.
"Nothing in the report would cause us to change the focus of the program," DeHaven said in an interview.
The report also said the USDA failed to test 518 of the 680 cattle condemned at slaughter for central nervous system symptoms between fiscal 2002 and 2004. Those symptoms indicate an animal could be suffering from one of several illnesses, including mad cow disease.
The USDA said it would not comment on past events, saying it has taken the necessary steps to ensure another occurrence.
"We're not focusing on what didn't happen in the past, but rather ensuring that we get those samples in the future," DeHaven said.
In April, USDA admitted that it had violated its own regulations when federal inspectors in Texas failed to test a 12-year-old cow even though it was possibly exhibiting a central nervous system disorder.
Investigators said the department's failure to test these animals raised questions about the credibility of the government's enhanced surveillance program for the brain-wasting disease.
As of Monday, the USDA had tested more than 15,000 cattle. It hopes to test more than 220,000 cattle by the end of 2005. Last year, USDA only tested about 20,000 cattle for the disease and only agreed to expand its testing after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was discovered last December.
DeHaven said he was "very encouraged" by the large number and type of cattle already being tested under an expanded surveillance program that started in June.
USDA investigators recommended steps be taken to ensure that all high-risk animals, including those that test negative for rabies, those condemned for (central nervous) symptoms and those that die on the farm are sampled and tested.
"The new BSE surveillance plan appears to have major deficiencies," said California Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and other top USDA officials will testify in a joint hearing on Wednesday about the agency's handling of the BSE situation.
Japan, typically the top U.S. beef buyer, continues to ban U.S. beef and live cattle products due to the discovery of a single mad cow case in December. It has demanded all 35 million cattle slaughtered annually be tested before easing the ban.
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