Farm and Food File: Mad over mad cow disease testing


Once, while researching the amount of grain the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. had in storage, I hit the brick-solid bureaucratic wall of silence.
No one at the corporation would acknowledge the amount of potentially market-flattening grain stocks it held or where the billions of bushels were parked. Frustration red-lined into anger.
Then I telephoned USDA’s Office of Inspector General, the rule enforcer of federal agencies and departments, to complain.
Forcing the facts. By pure luck, the person I stumbled upon that day decades ago knew the corporation inside and out.
“Well,” said the staffer after I explained the stonewalling, “that’s public information available upon request. Call the corporation back in five minutes.”
I waited the five minutes, telephoned, and the tight-lipped corporation folks quickly spilled their grain-inventory guts.
They had to because now the inspector general’s office was sniffing around and the corporation didn’t want an investigation on who wasn’t following the rules and, more importantly, why.
The right thing. Thus is the power of this office – the government’s own watchdog whose unofficial motto is “We do the right thing.”
Phyllis Fong, USDA’s current inspector general, did the right thing when she ordered definitive mad cow disease tests on tissue from three animals USDA had flagged as possible carriers last year.
In reviewing USDA’s testing protocols and the results the tests yielded – all negative – Fong wasn’t satisfied the department had followed its own rules.
Without tipping off the agbiz-favoring Bush appointees at USDA, she demanded new tests. This time, scientists in both the United States and England confirmed one of the animals was, indeed, suffering from mad cow disease.
List of wrongs. In doing the right thing, Fong pointed out the many wrong things the packer-backing USDA has done in carrying out its food safety mission.
The long list involved:
– The USDA having to admit that its so-called “gold standard” mad cow disease test, the immunohistochemistry is more leaden than golden.
“Science is ever evolving,” said Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns with a straight face when explaining the test’s shortcomings.
– Pushing USDA to adopt the “Western blot” test as the definitive, confirming test of any animal thought to be afflicted with mad cow disease.
The Western blot is the test used by the European Union and Japan, and the one USDA mostly shelved when it expanded mad cow disease testing in 2003.
– Proving that USDA’s intense politicking to reopen foreign markets to American beef through altered safety protocols; foregoing private mad cow disease testing; and pushing voluntary, rather than mandatory, animal identification and country of origin labeling are a waste of time, treasure and integrity.
USDA Inc. Moreover, that Fong had to step in at all again exposes USDA as USDA Inc., a big business lobby rather than a public service agency.
According to The Washington Post, circumstances surrounding the retested tissue showed incredible bumbling by USDA.
The tissues had been frozen, making the tests harder to conduct; parts of five animal carcasses to be tested were “temporarily mixed up”; “no written records were kept”; and – remarkably – three of four previous tests on the now-mad cow were positive but USDA somehow still declared the animal “negative.”
Despite all this positively negative proof that USDA again blundered in its search for mad cow, Secretary Mike Johanns continues to shill for meat packers.
“The fact that this animal was blocked from entering the food supply tells us that our safeguards are working exactly as they should,” he said during his announcement that USDA testing safeguards had failed.
The truth is, this animal could never have entered the food chain anyway. USDA banned the inclusion of “downer” cows – which this one was – after a mad cow was found in Washington State in 2003.
Answer. The boss never explained, however, why USDA announced the animal definitively “negative” for mad cow disease when the overwhelming evidence it already had in its beefy hand was, at best, inconclusive, and, at worst, “positive.”
Er, said a USDA spokesman later in explaining the lie:
“In hindsight, reporting it would have been the thing to do.”
No, reporting it would have been the right thing to do.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at

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