The USDA's testing program for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a key component of our firewall against the spread of the disease. There is no test for BSE that can be done on live animals or in beef; therefore, testing the brains of cattle after they are slaughtered is the point where surveillance for BSE takes place.
In the wake of the announcement of the third case of BSE in the U.S., the adequacy of the USDA's testing program is as importantand unclearas it has ever been.
Questions about the USDA's testing program are not new. In the early days of BSE testing, USDA performed only a few hundred tests per year. By 2002, the testing rate had increased to approximately 20,000 per year.
But when Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project analyzed USDA's data from 1997 through 2000, we found unexplainable variation in the rate of testing between various parts of the country. The testing rate ranged from 1,004 brains per million cattle slaughtered in New York to 0.5 brains per million cattle in Kansas, and attempts to adjust for the age of the cattle slaughtered or their feed did not account for the massive variations in testing rates between states.
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.
We still don't have answers to all these questions. But we do know we would recommend a stronger BSE surveillance program:
More testing. The agency should be testing all cattle over 20 months of age at slaughter. All downers and "suspect" (exhibiting signs of nervous system problems or rabies) animals should be tested, even if they don't go to slaughter. This level of commitment to detecting the disease could restore consumer confidenceincluding in major export markets like Japan where consumers are demanding testing of all cattle.
More transparency. The agency should be disclosing more than just the number of tests. Which animals get tested, and where, are all important indications of how well the testing program is going to work.
More consistency. USDA must design a consistent policy that exhausts every testing option available when there is an inconclusive rapid test result to avoid the type of confusion and delay that happened with the second case.
No monopoly on testing. USDA should allow companies to do their own testing, with the requirement that positive results must be reported to the government, and USDA inspectors and veterinarians have access to company testing records.
Contrary to the USDA's attempts to portray the second case of BSE as an indication that "the system worked," it should really serve as a wake-up call.
The USDA has known about the weaknesses in their testing program for years, and failed to take the necessary steps to adequately protect consumers from this disease. It is past time for them to act.