Jan. 15, 2004
Mad Cow Disease an Accident Waiting to Happen
Meat Inspectors: Companies Have Too Much Control Over USDA Testing Program
Washington, D.C. – A coalition of citizen and consumer groups said that today the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state last month provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with an opportune moment to strengthen inadequate meat inspection standards and protect the public health.
The coalition met with congressional aides today before holding a press briefing on the first mad cow case in the United States. The coalition released affidavits from federal meat inspectors in three regions of the country. The affidavits are part of an ongoing investigation by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the nation’s leading defender of whistleblowers. According to George Pauley, a consumer safety inspector for the USDA in the Northeast, “The lack of oversight by the USDA could be a recipe for disaster.”
Pauley’s and the other affidavits reveal that the training of frontline inspectors for spotting bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is sorely inadequate and, in numerous cases, non-existent. Further, meatpackers and producers participate in a voluntary, unscientific mad cow surveillance program with little oversight or management by the USDA. A study by Public Citizen and GAP last year revealed dramatic inconsistencies in testing among states. For the largest cattle-producing states, there was a 400- to 2,000-fold difference in testing rates between those with the highest and lowest rates. In many cases, the inspectors have direct experience with companies that select the cattle to be tested and harvest the samples themselves. An anonymous whistleblower from GAP’s investigation alleges that a financial incentive program paid producers and packers to voluntarily test animals, which they were allowed to choose.
“Our preliminary investigation has opened a Pandora’s box of avoidance by the USDA,” said Felicia Nestor, the Food Safety Program director at GAP. “The inspectors stepping forward today are on the front lines of defending the food supply from disease. Their disclosures open the door for the USDA to implement real reform rather than public relations Band-Aids applied to a real public health threat.”
The watchdog organizations participating in the coalition include the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, Public Citizen, Government Accountability Project, Community Nutrition Institute, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The coalition is committed to advocating reform in food safety practices. In April 2001, these and other organizations demanded that USDA Secretary Ann Veneman and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson ban the consumption of downer cattle to lower the risk of mad cow disease. The USDA announced last week it was taking such action, but only after public furor over the incident in Washington state, where a Canadian-born cow was discovered with BSE.
“The ban is a prudent step that should have been taken when our coalition proposed it almost three years ago, because it removes an important potential source of contamination,” said Patricia Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program for Public Citizen. “The risk to health can be lowered, however, only by strengthening the testing program.”
Last year, the United States tested fewer than 25,000 cattle for BSE, while nearly 33 million cattle were slaughtered.
“I’m extremely concerned that industry may be self-selecting the animals in some regions of the country. If true, industry will not select animals from the high-risk categories, as trained government inspectors would,” said Dr. Michael Hanson, senior research associate with Consumers Union.
The organizations also said that the USDA was ill-prepared to implement the new ban on downer cattle, a conclusion supported by affidavits from federal inspectors in several regions. “The USDA’s current meat safety system should not be a sacred cow,” Nestor said. “We need tougher standards, honest enforcement and greater accountability by the USDA to protect the public health.”
The coalition proposed that USDA and HHS take several immediate steps to strengthen food safety, in addition to testing all cattle over 20 months of age for BSE at slaughter. These include:
- Banning the human consumption of materials produced through advanced meat recovery and mechanical deboning of cattle carcasses;
- Incorporating rapid testing technology and making the results public on a timely basis; and,
- Eliminating loopholes and strengthening enforcement of the current “feed ban,” which still allows the use of cattle blood as a feed supplement for cattle, the use of rendered cattle and bone meal as a feed supplement for hogs and poultry, and the use of rendered hogs and chickens and chicken waste as cattle feed.
In addition to these immediate steps, the coalition proposed other actions and reforms:
- Congress should establish and fund a commission on food safety, which was authorized in the 2002 farm legislation. President Bush has never requested funds and Congress has not authorized them. The commission would recommend steps in 2005 to improve food safety; and,
- Congress should direct the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and the USDA’s Inspector General to investigate and report on the mad cow disease outbreak.
In addition, the coalition said it was establishing an Accountability Center to publicly monitor the implementation of programs and policies to address mad cow disease reforms over the next year.
Click here to read the affidavits.