Two consumer groups are questioning the effectiveness of government efforts to guard against mad cow disease, but officials and ranchers maintain the system is safe.
The consumer groups, the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen today released a study claiming government standards for testing for mad cow disease are unevenly applied from state to state — suggesting some cattle that should be tested, aren't.
In a statement released by Public Citizen on behalf of both groups, two former U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians said they were not surprised by the state-to-state discrepancies in using the brain tissue tests that check for mad cow disease — a brain disease also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
"Even though the plant I worked in had high numbers of downer cows [cows that could not walk], no brains were ever taken for BSE testing," said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, according to Public Citizen. "And I continue to hear from veterinarians across the country that they still haven't had any brains from their plants taken for BSE testing."
But a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture division that conducts the testing insisted the system is thorough, and said the consumer groups did not look at the data properly.
"Cows very often are raised in one state, and slaughtered in another state, so to go on a state-by-state basis wouldn't give you a representative basis," said Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Curlett added that the USDA data normally is grouped according to eight multi-state regions, with fairly constant rates of testing for mad cow disease.
He added that the USDA has not yet had an opportunity to thoroughly review the public interest groups' study.
Never Detected in United States
Mad cow disease has never been detected in U.S. cattle.
In Europe, about 100 people, mostly in Britain, have died of a human form of the disease — Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — contracted from eating contaminated meat.
To monitor the situation in the United States, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service tests the brains of cattle older than 20 months that appear to be suffering from central nervous disorders, or are unable to walk at the time of their slaughter. There has never been a case of mad cow disease found in cattle younger than 20 months old, Curlett said.
The consumer groups' study claims 2,300 brains were tested out of 35,000 cattle slaughtered in 2000, but says different states tested at wildly varying rates, and in many cases tests on disabled animals were not always conducted. Public Citizen says it used government data from August 1997 to December 2000 to establish rates in the top 20 cattle-producing states, and found rates ranging from 1,004 brains per million cattle slaughtered in New York, to 0.5 brains per million cattle slaughtered, in Kansas.
Dispute Over Methods
The USDA says those figures are misleading, because different plants handle different populations of cows. Although 88 percent of cows slaughtered nationally are younger than 20 months old, some plants handle more or fewer older cattle that might be subject to mad cow testing — meaning the rates of testing might vary from plant to plant, or state to state.
"We've never had any BSE in this country, so we're looking for it, so we've got to look at the populations that are most susceptible," Curlett said. "If you were looking for Alzheimer's disease, would you test a 12 year old, or somebody that's much older?"
But Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said the study separately analyzed populations of cows based upon their ages. He said there were statistically significant numbers of older cattle slaughtered in each of the 20 states, and some states still were hundreds of times more likely to test for mad cow disease.
"No matter what, the variations between states are enormous," Lurie said.
He argued that with the adjustments for age of the cattle, the state-by-state comparisons are more effective than regional comparisons.
"The data are made available by state, so we looked at them by state," Lurie said. "Obviously if you start combining states, you will reduce variability. That will be true in general. So I think a better way of looking at it would be to look at the states."
Ranchers also attacked the study, with Matt Brockman, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, suggesting the report is based on an anti-beef bias, not on sound science.
"I can't think of an issue more important to that Texas rancher out there, that Oklahoma rancher out there, that's more important than keeping this disease out of the United States," Brockman said. "We feed the beef that we're producing to our own children, to our own families, so human health is number one. Economics is also an issue, as well."
ABCNEWS' Jim Ryan in Dallas contributed to this report.