Agency Fought Retesting of Infected Cow

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

Agriculture Department officials overruled field scientists' recommendation to retest an animal that was suspected of harboring mad cow disease last year because they feared a positive finding would undermine confidence in the agency's testing procedures, the department's inspector general said yesterday.

After protests from the inspector general, the specimen was sent to England for retesting and produced the nation's second confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease.

The incident was described in an audit report assessing the department's surveillance program for the disease.

The report details why scientists at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories concluded that a sample from a Texas animal should be tested with other techniques following initial inconclusive findings. It adds that top officials at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) told them not to do the additional tests.

When officials from the inspector general's office met with the head of APHIS, they were told that the protocol followed by the agency was the international "gold standard" and nothing more was needed, the report adds. Nonetheless, the sample was later sent to England for a different set of tests and was found to have the mad cow infection.

The report also found that although there was no evidence that infected meat had made it into the human food chain, the USDA surveillance system did not collect the information needed to say whether slaughterhouses were following all mad cow-related regulations. In nine of 12 facilities visited, the report said, inadequate recordkeeping made it impossible to know whether proper procedures were being followed.

"As a result, should serious animal disease be detected in the United States, USDA's ability to quickly determine and trace the source of infections to prevent the spread of disease could be impaired," the report said.

In a statement, USDA food safety administrator Barbara J. Masters said officials have taken steps to better enforce the rules and have reached agreement with the inspector general on most issues. "FSIS is confident it is successfully carrying out its mission to protect public health by strictly enforcing safeguards," she said.

The discovery of two cases of mad cow disease in American animals caused many nations to ban American beef, but some have resumed shipments.

Mad cow is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle that, in rare cases, has been passed to humans, who develop a fatal brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

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