Thursday, July 15


You really have to hand it to the USDA for their brilliant management of the Mad Cow crisis. I'm not kidding. I don't mean the actual threat to public health, of course, but the threat to the meat industry. They're all over that. The latest move was to release a flurry of findings and hype related to several different aspects of the situation so that overworked journalists would have a hard time sorting it out, or finding out which nugget was front-page news.

I'd nominate this one: "The United States is neglecting to test the majority of cattle most at risk of having mad cow disease." Reuters cites USDA investigators saying that the agency "was not testing adult cattle that died on the farm and had failed to test hundreds of cattle condemned due to possible central nervous system disorder -- a symptom of mad cow disease and many other diseases." More specifically, "the USDA failed to test 518 of the 680 cattle condemned at slaughter for central nervous system symptoms between fiscal 2002 and 2004." Hmmmm. Wonder why they didn't think to test those other 518?

While that was coming through, the USDA's Inspector General, Phyllis K. Fong, gave the final word on the famous so-called-Downer Cow issue, and good for her that no one was paying attention, because this smells exactly like an overcrowded feedlot: "Agriculture Department officials did not intentionally falsify records of a Washington state cow found to be infected with mad cow disease," she said, but added that "two weeks after a USDA veterinarian inspected the animal last December and declared it an ailing 'downer,' he took the unusual step of updating and annotating the records after being queried by Agriculture Department officials." Huh. Yeah, that is a little odd. But no explanation as to why this happened. "She also said he failed to place a required ear tag on the animal." Wow. What a coincidence, right? That this one animal happened to miss out on ear tagging? But it gets sillier: "The man who made the ["no downer"] allegation, Fong said, appeared to be mistaken about which animal turned out to be infected." Oh, really? Funny how the next sentence mentions that "five people at either the slaughterhouse or the dairy farm from which it came saw the cow walking the day it was slaughtered." So not only was Dave Louthan "mistaken," there was some kind of mass hallucination going on that day. And the crowning note: "Fong did not come to any independent conclusion about whether the infected animal was a downer." Of course not - because it's not as if that was a central issue to this entire investigation. Jesus. We all know that if they'd been able to back it up, they would certainly have come to the "conclusion" that it was a downer. The fact that they're trying to weasel out of the whole argument almost proves Louthan and Ellestad were right.

Meanwhile, Steve Mitchell continues to plug away, scaring up interesting documents showing that the USDA in 2002 advised against the very test it's now using, specifically because of the danger of "false positives." But Mitchell's sources argue for a PR strategy even more brilliant than I'd suspected:

    "By releasing preliminary positives -- or inconclusives, as the USDA has deemed them -- that are later ruled negative, the agency could desensitize markets, consumers and foreign trading partners to real positive cases when and if they occur, the sources said. 'Bio-Rad was approved as a way of getting people used to a possible case if there ever was one,' a veterinarian with expertise in mad cow disease told UPI. 'They (USDA officials) know it has a high false positive rate ... The more inconclusives they have, the easier it is to "mix something up" and have all negative tests,' said the veterinarian, who requested anonymity. The veterinarian's comments were echoed by other experts in this field, who also declined to be named.

    USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick did not respond to UPI's question of whether this was the agency's intended strategy. However, John Clifford, USDA's chief veterinary officer, acknowledged at a recent news conference that release of the inconclusive results could have that effect. 'We want to minimize the impacts upon the markets,' Clifford said. 'We feel like that after we get this information out there a couple of times that hopefully it will continue to minimize that impact.'

    Quick insisted the agency's statement was not intended to recommend against the Bio-Rad test. Instead, she said, it was meant to recommend that countries not simply rely on rapid screening tests as a way to confirm a case of mad cow disease. No other testing experts UPI contacted interpreted the statement that way and Quick, who acknowledged she was not familiar with the technical details of the tests, declined to make Clifford or other USDA officials available to discuss the issue or offer clarification.

    The USDA's decision not to release the samples from the two inconclusives for verification by outside labs has also come under question. The agency used a test called immunohistochemistry, or IHC, to determine the animals were not infected with mad cow, but experts said this is not always a foolproof test and it can miss cases. Markus Moser, Prionics' chief executive officer and a molecular biologist, noted that Germany was considered BSE-free when using the IHC test. When officials there began using the Prionics rapid test in 2000, he said, they found several cases and so far have detected more than 300 infected animals.

    Stuart Wilson, Microsens' scientific director and a molecular pathologist, noted in a document he recently prepared on false positives that there have been instances when Bio-Rad was used more than a few months before the animal developed symptoms and they were found correctly to be positive, but IHC incorrectly ruled them negative.

In other words, in addition to all the other crazy chicanery, the test that overturned the false positives might well have been wrong. I'd think something like that would at least make page 2 or 3, no?

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