USDA picks more BSE labs, sets talks with Japan

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May 14, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved five more laboratories to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), bringing the number of labs involved in the expanding BSE surveillance program to 12.

The agency also announced this week it would begin a series of technical discussions with Japan next week in an effort to reopen the Japanese market to American beef. Japan banned US beef after a BSE case was found in Washington state last December.

The testing labs, which will be paid by the USDA for each test, are Kissimee Diagnostic Laboratory, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Kissimee, Fla.; the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Kansas State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Manhattan; the USDA Laboratory in Frankfort, Ky.; and Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory, Harrisburg, Pa.

The labs will use approved rapid tests for BSE surveillance, the USDA said in a May 11 announcement. The department's National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, is the national reference lab for BSE and will conduct confirmatory testing. The seven previously approved labs are in California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington state, Georgia, and New York.

The USDA announced plans Mar 15 to increase BSE testing for 12 to 18 months to ascertain the disease's existence or prevalence in American herds. The program will focus on cattle deemed at increased risk for BSE, including nonambulatory cattle, those with signs of central nervous system disease, emaciated and injured cattle, and dead cattle. Plans also call for randomly testing about 20,000 healthy cattle over 30 months old.

The USDA has said it will test as many cattle as possible in the high-risk categories but has refused to give a target number. But testing 268,000 animals would enable the agency to detect one case of BSE among 10 million cattle with 99% confidence, officials have said.

Talks with Japan set May 18 and 19
The technical discussions on beef trade with Japan will begin with meetings May 18 and 19 in Tokyo, the USDA announced May 12. The goal is to reopen Japan to US beef this summer, officials said.

The agency said a US-Japanese technical working group will discuss issues including the definition of BSE and testing methods, the definition of specified risk materials (high-risk cattle tissues) and methods for removing them, appropriate surveillance, and appropriate implementation of rules designed to keep infective material out of cattle feed.

American members of the technical group will include Peter Fernandez, associate administration of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); George Gray, executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard University; William James of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS); Daniel McChesney of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Center for Veterinary Medicine; and Gary Smith, a retired professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.

Harkin criticizes BSE surveillance plan
In other recent developments, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, this week questioned the soundness of the USDA's BSE surveillance plan. A news release from Harkin's office, summarizing points he made in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, stated, "The plan seems to be dictated primarily by how many cattle USDA wants to test rather than by the number that would have to bested, using valid statistical methods, to reach accurate and reliable conclusions."

Harkin also said the testing plan "places a heavy load on already-burdened federal and state veterinarians to obtain samples under very trying circumstances. Clearly, the opportunities for avoiding BSE testing at plants through self-selection, opting out or dropping out are very extensive." He said it "is quite doubtful" that the USDA will be able to test enough cattle in the high-risk groups to produce valid results.

Ed Loyd, a spokesman in Veneman's office, told CIDRAP News he was not familiar with Harkin's letter, but he defended the surveillance plan. "Secretary Veneman has made it very clear that USDA is committed to having an extensive, robust, and effective surveillance program," he said. "Starting June 1 we are going to try to test as many cattle in the high-risk categories as possible to make a determination if BSE exists in this country and its prevalence in the national herd. We intend to make sure it is done in a scientifically valid and effective way." He said extensive preparation has gone into the plan.

Harkin also criticized the USDA for the recent case in which a cow that collapsed at a Texas slaughter plant was not tested for BSE, contrary to standard procedures. The USDA acknowledged the incident May 3 and promised to investigate it. Officials said the cow was sent to a rendering facility and was kept out of the food supply. The Food and Drug Administration said it traced the animal's remains and vowed to make sure they didn't end up in cattle feed.

APHIS spokesman Jim Rogers said today the investigation of the case is continuing. An investigative unit in the FSIS is examining the incident, Rogers told CIDRAP News. "They're doing a door-to-door investigation to find out exactly what happened, but I have no other information and no timeline," he said.

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