USDA probing reports that BSE-infected cow could walk

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Feb 24, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – The inspector general of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investigating allegations that the nation's first cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was not a "downer" when it arrived at a slaughter plant in December.

Two employees at the Washington state plant where the cow was slaughtered and the trucker who brought the cow to the plant said the cow could walk on arrival, according to a letter that two leaders of the US House Government Reform Committee sent last week to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. The letter cited documents supplied by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a nonprofit group that supports whistleblowers.

The USDA's current BSE testing program focuses on cattle that can't walk, or that show signs of neurologic disease, on arrival at slaughter plants. The two Congressmen, Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the allegations raise questions about the adequacy of the BSE testing program. "If the new information is accurate, USDA's surveillance program may need to be significantly expanded," they wrote.

USDA officials said last week and again yesterday that the BSE-infected cow was lying down when a USDA veterinary examined it Dec 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meats. But the cow might have gotten up after it was examined, they said.

Speaking at a telephone news briefing yesterday, Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinary officer, said, "We're basing our statement that the animal was a downer on the fact that there are records from the Food Safety Inspection Service veterinarian who examined this animal before slaughter. He examined her in a recumbent position on the trailer that brought her to the livestock market. Having said that, there is nothing saying that an animal that is down cannot get up."

Because the issue is sensitive, DeHaven said, "The USDA Office of Inspector General has initiated an investigation." He added, "From a disease standpoint the most important thing is that the animal was tested and it was positive, and we have responded aggressively, quickly, and appropriately since then."

Davis and Waxman's letter cites an allegation that the sick cow was not tested because it was a downer but rather because the slaughter plant had a contract with the USDA to supply cattle brain samples for BSE testing, regardless of the cattle's condition.

According to the letter, plant co-manager Thomas Ellestad said the plant stopped accepting nonambulatory cattle in February 2003. USDA asked plant officials last summer to provide samples for BSE testing, but Ellestad declined because the plant was not accepting downer cattle. Ellestad reported that the USDA was having trouble getting enough brain samples from downer cattle and therefore, in a later offer, dropped the requirement that tested cattle be downers, according to the letter. The plant supplied the USDA with more than 250 samples for BSE testing from October through December, Ellestad said.

According to Davis and Waxman's letter, hauler Randy Hull said the BSE-infected cow walked onto his trailer the day he brought it to the slaughter plant. And plant employee David Louthan, who killed the cow, said it was walking at the time, the letter states.

Davis and Waxman said the GAP supplied their committee with the statements by Ellestad, Hull, and Louthan, along with related documents.

Yesterday a USDA advisory group, the Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases, released a report recommending that the department increase its BSE testing beyond cattle that look sick or can't walk on arrival for slaughter. The committee called for broad testing of downer cattle, those with signs of neurologic disease, and those that die on farms. To facilitate this, the committee also called for "a comprehensive system" for the reporting of dead and downer cattle, collection of samples, and safe disposal of carcasses.

See also:

Transcript of Feb 23 USDA news briefing
http://www.usda.gov/Newsroom/0082.04.html

Government Accountability Project
http://www.whistleblower.org/

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