Since the United States' first BSE-positive cow was found in December 2003, the USDA has revamped its testing program. But our list of questions about the design and execution of the program has actually gotten longer.
1. Is the downer-cow ban rule going to be changed? USDA has indicated that it has been testing all downer cows because this is the population of animals that has the greatest likelihood of exhibiting BSE symptoms.
One of the BSE interim regulations that USDA put in place on January 12, 2004, was to prohibit "non-ambulatory, disabled" cattle, or downer cows, from entering the human food supply. In recent months, however, the new Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, has indicated in at least two congressional hearings that he is considering a relaxation of that ban because industry has been complaining that injured cattle that do not have BSE are being prevented from being slaughtered.
This is a deviation from the "out of abundance of caution" standard that USDA had been using since the December 2003 BSE case.
2. How long will "enhanced" testing last? Last spring, USDA announced the start of an "enhanced" surveillance program. Agency officials always made a point to say that this was intended to provide a one-time snapshot, not establish a permanent level of testing. After surpassing their original goal of 270,000 tests, the accelerated testing rate has continued. As of July, more than 400,000 tests had been performed.
At a recent meeting with consumer groups, Ron DeHaven, the administrator for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that they were looking at different funding sources to continue the enhanced surveillance program in light of the most recent case of BSE found in Texasbut there is nothing definite.
3. Which animals are being tested? The agency has been quite forthcoming about one aspect of their programthe total number of tests performed. We don't know how the tests are distributedby geography, by age of animal, or by type of facility where animals are selected (dead and downer cattle go to rendering plants while tests on other animals would take place at slaughterhouses).
4. Why are no healthy animals being tested? Contrary to initial descriptions of the intensive testing program, which said that 20,000 healthy animals would be included, recent agency statements indicate that no healthy cattle have been tested. Recently, the Japanese Agriculture Ministry found that had they used the U.S. testing system, nearly half of their 20 cases of BSE would have gone undetected.
5. What happened in November? Last fall, rapid testing on a cow in Texas came up as inconclusive. The agency ordered a confirmatory test at the agency's lab in Ames, Iowa, and announced that they were waiting to have it confirmed. Then they happily announced that the cow was negative. What they failed to mention were the serious lapses in the handling of the brain sample, and that a third "experimental" test had come back positive.
Months later, an investigation by the USDA's Inspector General revealed inconsistencies in the testing program that led to a re-test. And seven months later, the public found out that the second case of BSE in the U.S. had been discovered.
Despite a seven-month delay and circumstances that at worst look like a cover-up and at best seem to indicate gross incompetence, USDA officials actually claimed that this case somehow shows that "the system worked."
6. Why can't private companies do their own testing? Testing is a crucial sticking point in negotiations to re-open the Japanese market to U.S. beef. One company, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, thought they had come up with a way to give their Japanese customers what they want. In 2004, the company requested that USDA issue them a license for the use of rapid tests. USDA said no, and to date, no private company is doing their own BSE testing.