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.
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.
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.