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Study Finds Flaws in “Mad Cow” Detection Program

Note: This release contains changes from a previous version

July 19, 2001

Study Finds Flaws in “Mad Cow” Detection Program

Analysis Reveals a Wide Variation in State Testing Rates

WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) program to detect mad cow disease is plagued with dramatic inconsistencies between states, an analysis by Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has found. The report shows that for the largest cattle-producing states, there is a 400- to 2,000-fold difference in testing rates for mad cow disease between those with the highest and lowest rates.

“The USDA’s claim that the U.S. is free from this disease would be more credible if the testing program was not in such disarray,” said Felicia Nestor, food safety program director at GAP. “Such erratic testing practices in a program that is over a decade old are just unacceptable.”

In theory, the USDA’s mad cow disease surveillance program consists of testing the brains of all cattle diagnosed with central nervous system disorders at the time of slaughter and testing a sample of “downer” cows, animals that are unable to walk. In 2000, approximately 2,300 brains were tested of 35 million cattle slaughtered. Largely on the basis of this program, which has produced no positive results, the USDA claims that the United States is free from mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). BSE is a neurological disease in cattle that has been linked to a fatal condition in humans, known as “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.” Approximately 100 people have died from the disease, primarily in Britain.

Public Citizen and GAP evaluated the surveillance program by using government data to determine the testing rate for each of the top 20 cattle-producing states from August 1997 through December 2000. There was a 400- to 2,000-fold difference between the states with the highest and lowest testing rates.

“A basic requirement for any BSE surveillance program is that testing rates across the country be approximately equal so that the disease is as likely to be detected wherever it might occur,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s Advisory Committee on BSE and related diseases. “The current program is a strikingly haphazard way to assess whether or not a fatal disease is present in this country. USDA does not even have a clear definition of a downer cow.”

The results of the analysis are backed up by several USDA veterinarians.

“Even though the plant I worked in had high numbers of downer cows, no brains were ever taken for BSE testing,” said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian and federal whistleblower. “And I continue to hear from veterinarians across the country that they still havent had any brains from their plants taken for BSE testing.”

Recently retired USDA veterinarian Michael Schwochert’s experience also supports the findings. “The difference in testing rates between states is easy to understand, considering the conditions in the field,” he said. “Shortages of veterinarians to examine cattle coming into the plants and the involvement of different divisions of the USDA make performing a BSE test an extra burden for veterinarians. If the USDA were serious about setting up a thorough surveillance program for this disease, it would do a lot of things differently.”

In a letter sent Thursday to USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, Public Citizen and GAP have made several recommendations for strengthening the USDA’s surveillance program. These include establishing clear, consistent criteria for choosing which animals are tested for BSE and conducting unannounced inspections to monitor compliance with these criteria. While the USDA has proposed increases in BSE testing rates in 2001, these will not be as valuable as they might be if they are not spread more uniformly across the country.

“The potential consequences of mad cow disease occurring in the U.S. are too severe for USDA’s testing program to rely on a haphazard testing scheme,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The USDA needs to design and be able to explain its surveillance program so that the public can have more confidence in claims that the U.S. is free from this disease.”

Public Citizen and GAP are members of the Global Safe Food Alliance, a new coalition of consumer, religious, farm, animal welfare, labor and environmental groups that works on issues of meat production and food safety.

The Global Safe Food Alliance had sent an earlier letter about BSE to the FDA and USDA.